Alex Woodard's latest project based on grieving daughter's messages to her late dad, a Vietnam War veteran
RANCHO SANTA FE — Author and musician Alex Woodard is a great believer in serendipity. Only by chance could his life have taken such a dramatic turn two years ago when he opened a package of letters from a fan in Texas.
Inside was a faded 1968 photograph of young U.S. Air Force Sgt. John K. Fuller in Vietnam, copies of his letters home from the war, and a stack of more-recent letters that Fuller’s now-grown daughter, Jennifer, wrote to her late father as a form of catharsis. The Fort Worth school administrator said she hoped Woodard could find artistic inspiration in her parents’ tragic love story.
On Veterans Day, Woodard, 42, published “For the Sender: Love Letters from Vietnam,” a 233-page book that weaves together the Fuller family’s sad history with his own two-year study of war and the psychological damage it can leave behind.
“Truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s amazing how much my life has paralleled the life of this project. When you get on these magical trails, you stay on them,” said Woodard, who shares a 4-acre Rancho Santa Fe property with Stella, his 12-year-old chocolate Labrador, and two 13-year-old mountain horses, Annie and Ariel.
“Love Letters from Vietnam” is the third and final book/CD in Woodard’s “For the Sender” series. The project began three years ago when he and a group of North County musical friends began writing songs based on some of the more than 500 handwritten letters Woodard receives from fans each year. The Vietnam project is the first on a single subject and for which Woodard wrote all the songs.
Woodard’s book weaves together a narrative of fact and fiction. There are photos of John Fuller and his increasingly despondent wartime letters to then-wife, Rebecca; recollections by other Vietnam veterans and the divided America they returned to in the early 1970s; and the story of Fuller’s slow tailspin into alcohol and drugs. He cheated on his wife, abandoned his family and was shot to death in 1998 after he showed up with a pair of guns at an ex-girlfriend’s home in Louisiana.
Seven years after her father died, Jennifer found a box of her father’s wartime letters, and as a way to cope with her grief and anger, she began writing him back, stuffing her own letters (written from 2007 to 2009) into the same box. The first, penned as if it was written in 1968 (two years before her birth), begins: “Dear Sergeant Fuller, You won’t know me for another two years, but I am your daughter.”
The book includes several of Jennifer’s letters to her dad expressing wonder at his experience in Vietnam, questioning what drove him away from his family and asking whether he’s found peace in the afterlife. Woodard writes several letters back to Jennifer in John’s voice, creating a father-daughter conversation from beyond the grave.
Woodard became enamored with letters after reaching a career crossroads in 2008. After struggling for a decade as a touring singer-songwriter, he took a break to figure out the next chapter of his life. Not long after, his record label went under and his best friend, a Labrador named Kona, died of bone cancer.
To promote his now-self-published CDs, he promised to write a song for anyone who pre-ordered an album if they’d send him their story in a handwritten letter. One letter from a woman named Emily, who had lost her soulmate to cancer, struck a chord.
“I realized the stories and songs I was writing belong to all of us,” he said. “Whether it’s the loss of a partner or the loss of my dog, the feeling is the same. They’re both loss.”
Working with local musicians Sean and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot, Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin and Molly Jensen, he released “For the Sender: Four letters, Twelve songs, One story” in 2012. A second book and album, “For the Sender: Love Is (Not a Feeling),” followed last year.
The projects, published by Hay House USA, were a surprise hit. Fans include Dr. Wayne Dyer, who invited Woodard to play on his PBS television special, and two theatrical producers who hope to develop the songs and letters into a musical.
Woodard said the books not only gave his letter-writers a voice, they helped him discover a new vocation as an author and gave him renewed confidence in his songwriting abilities.
The “Love Letters” book comes with a CD of songs written as if John (sung by Woodard) and Jennifer (sung by Molly Jensen) are singing to each other. To write the songs, Woodard said he sat down and read each of the letters, then closed his eyes and started strumming his guitar.
“I just imagined myself behind the soldier’s’ eyes and in his heart and just let it grow from there,” he said.
Jennifer first wrote to Woodard after she saw him perform a “For the Sender” concert in Austin several years ago and was overcome with emotion at the thought of having her own letters set to music.
“All I can say is I broke out into the ugly cry. I was so moved, touched and inspired,” Jennifer said of the experience.
When he agreed to write the project, she gave him the box of letters and her blessing to do as he wished.
For the book, Woodard exhaustively researched the Vietnam War and interviewed several war veterans he encountered in his travels. He also weaves into the book his own story about restoring an Idaho cabin that was nearly destroyed by fire and landslide a few years ago. He sees a parallel between the cabin renovation and Jennifer’s letters to her dad.
“For the book, I built a house in my mind out of letters from this young man and how his life fell apart and her repair of this house with her letters,” he said. “It was like my house, something had shaken this house off its foundation and it needed to be repaired.”
Woodard, Jensen and friends will present a holiday “For the Sender” book and album release concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 20 at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. He’s planning to spend much of 2016 touring to promote the project, beginning with a kickoff concert in New York in February. After that, he’s got several more books in mind.
While he’s pleased at the positive initial response to his new project, Woodard said there’s only one critic who really matters. Last weekend, he and Jensen flew to Gulf Shores, Ala., to meet Jennifer and her mother, Rebecca, at the beach where the family spent many happy summers in the 1970s. Woodard and Jensen performed every song and they floated a copy of the book out to sea in John’s honor.
“It was an incredible, beautiful experience,” he said. “The most important person I wanted to touch was her. Everything else is a bonus.”
Jennifer called the experience “epic and surreal.”
“I had front row seats to the concert of my lifetime. Part one was on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico waters complete with dolphins swimming all around us. Part two was on the balcony of the condominium with the Gulf Shores as a back drop. My heart was filled with complete joy,” she said.