An Interview with Keni Thomas, Country Singer and Former Army Ranger
Keni Thomas has one of the most interesting back stories of any current country singer. He’s currently making music with his band Cornbread, but before he made music his career, he was an Army Ranger who first saw combat in 1993 at the Battle of Mogadishu, which would later be immortalized in Mark Bowden’s book, Black Hawk Down. Thomas, a Bronze Star recipient, recently published his own book, Get It On, about his experiences in Somalia and the lessons he took away from it.
Juli Thanki: Your two careers have led to some amazing experiences. Which was more nerve-wracking for you: jumping out of a C130 for the first time, or singing at the World Series?
Keni Thomas: (laughs) The only things I’ve ever been nervous for in the last ten years is singing the anthem at the Series and asking my fiancée to marry me. Jumping out of a plan isn’t that hard to do because there’s people behind you pushing you, and you’ve gotta go. You don’t have a choice. But when you’re standing in front of a microphone and everybody’s watching, you think, “Don’t mess it up.”
Either way, it’s important not to suck (laughs).
JT: When did you first start taking an interest in playing and writing country music?
KT: I think if you ask any musician, they’ll tell you it’s in their veins. There’s so many other options that the course of my life could have taken, but [music] keeps pulling you back.
When we first started [the band] Cornbread, we were kind of acoustic rock, roots stuff. I wouldn’t have told you we were country, but in Columbus, Georgia, there are only two acts that are going to come through there: classic rock and country. There was a spring festival and a fall festival, and we had a pretty good following, so the [festival organizers] said, “Okay, who do you want to open for: Blue Oyster Cult, or some guy named Toby Keith?”
I didn’t know who Toby Keith was at the time. He was still kind of up and coming. And I said, “I don’t think we fit in front of Blue Oyster Cult, as much as I love ‘Godzilla.’ Put us in front of the country guy.” We ended up selling 100 CDs that night. For a local band, it was like, “Holy cow!” Then we started opening up for all the country acts who came through town, and sooner or later we ended up with the guys from Montgomery Gentry. Eddie and Troy were real sweet to us and they invited us up to do some shows with them, and that pointed us toward Nashville.
When I look back on it, every avenue, even the speaking events, all ran through Nashville. That was just where I was supposed to be.
JT: So when you enlisted, you went right to Ranger School after basic?
KT: That’s a common misconception; even I thought that. I thought once you got into the Ranger regiment, then you go to Ranger School. There’s months of training: you have basic training, AIT (Advanced Individual Training), Airborne School, and then this program called RAFT, which is 2 ½ months where they basically indoctrinate you into the Ranger regiment’s way of doing things, so that when you get to the regiment, you can hit the ground running, because you’re deployable 24/7, and there’s always a Ranger regiment in-country. There’s only three regiments, so you figure they go for six months at a time and are home for a year.
The fastest I’ve ever seen someone go to Ranger School was in about eight months. Ranger School is basically a leadership course, like a rite of passage. They teach you to do the types of missions that Rangers do on a regular basis, small unit tactics, motivating people to do very tough things under very tough circumstances. You have to have the Ranger tab before they let you move up in the ranks so you can be a team leader.
I was there for just about a year before they sent me to Ranger School. I got my sergeant stripes not too long after that.
JT: You went to college; can I ask why you enlisted instead of going the OCS (Officer Candidate School) route?
KT: I’ve never been asked that question. I knew that it was not going to be a career. I stayed in probably four years longer than I thought I was going to stay in; I really loved it. Had that disease of music not started taking hold, and had the band not been doing pretty well, I would have stayed in. My ultimate goal would have been to fly helicopters; I would have moved over and become a warrant officer.
JT: On to your book, Get It On. How long did it take you to write it?
KT: The first answer would be “a lifetime to get the story together.” The writing process itself wasn’t that hard. I knew what I wanted to say. To me, writing a book was easier than writing a song, in that a song has to have melodies and rhyme and you’ve got to make every single word count. With the book, it just flowed. I knew how I wanted to say it, and once we had an outline, all I had to do was block out the time. The hardest part for me was how to incorporate my faith into this book, putting it out on a Christian label like Lifeway, and not sounding preachy. I didn’t want to sound like a know-it-all, because I don’t. I had to do a lot of research into the Old Testament and research the battles. I had to find a way to be honest about how I feel without sounding like I was trying to a preacher. I finally figured out that the reason those battles in the Old Testament worked so well, the reason they moved smoothly through the story is because they’re [about] the same theme I’m talking about: it’s some person that was not of significant rank, who thought they weren’t capable, who stepped up and did amazing things and set an example for others to follow and made a huge difference. They did it based on the fact that they had faith that it was going to work out. There was always one person who stood up and did something beyond their comfort zone.
If you asked me who I’m writing to, it’s not just for military people. Nobody needs to know the history of [the Battle of Mogadishu]; it’s been told. But what people out there in the real world need to know that you’re capable of extraordinary thing. This is the story of guys who were privates, and no one would have given them the time of day because they weren’t in charge of anything. But it was their example and leadership that saved every one of us, I promise you.
JT: The combat scenes in the book are very vivid. Was it difficult to relive those in order to write them down, or was it cathartic?
KT: It wasn’t difficult. I have the outlet for it. If it strikes me one day to write a song that feels like a military story, I have that opportunity. I get invited to play a lot of military events because I’m one of their own. I’m around it enough that I felt comfortable telling the story. It’s always good therapy to tell that story. If you think there’s levels in the process of therapy and healing, and I think the further along you get, the more at peace you become. The more at peace you become, the better you’re able to communicate.
I very recently had to go back in to the VA because I hadn’t done some paperwork right, and part of the process was sitting down and doing the PTSD interview. [The psychiatrist] has this list of questions he’s supposed to ask you, and from that list, they determine whether or not you have PTSD, whether you need to receive treatment, and whether or not you’ll get benefits. None of us are dumb: we know what we’re supposed to answer if we want benefits. They’ll ask “Do you have bad dreams at night,” and you’d say “Yes.”
I sat down there and I was pretty honest, and [the psychiatrist] looked at me and said “You don’t have PTSD.” I wanted to look at her and say “How do you know? I’m just further along in my process.” I’ve had years to talk about it and tell the story. Writing it was definitely therapeutic, but that definition for me might be different than someone who’s only two years out of combat. I’m able to get the story out, and when people go through traumatic events, the best thing you can do for them—and they don’t even know it yet—is let them be able to talk about it so that it doesn’t build up inside and it doesn’t become a dirty word like what happened after Vietnam.
JT: What lessons from your Army service could be applied to your second career as a musician and bandleader?
KT: The can-do attitude, and that work ethic of driving forward and not quitting. The military is a great place for the overachievers because there’s always something new to achieve. But what I’ve learned in the music business is that it’s not necessarily about being better than the other guy. What you learn is that intestinal fortitude, and you drive forward because that’s what you know what to do.
I’ll tell you a story: I was in an airport in California, waiting on a plane that was eight hours late. I was like “This sucks.” I watched a plane come in from Atlanta, and a guy who came off was a friend of mine, Tommy, who was in music with me. We started talking and catching up, and [it turns out] that Tommy is the bandleader for Justin Bieber. He was like, “Dude, it’s a wonderful life. It isn’t what I planned. I always thought I’d front my own band, but it worked out for me. I kept moving forward and getting better.”
So we got to talking about all the bands we knew who were doing well on a regional level back in Georgia: Zac Brown, the Jennifer Nettles Band—and the only people who aren’t doing well are the ones that stopped.
JT: You’ve been busy with the book, but it’s been a while since your last album. Any plans to get back in the studio in the near future?
KT: The original plan was to put out an album with uplifting, positive songs—the songs I like to write—as a companion to the book. We tried and tried but found that we were rushing. It’s enough just to get a book out and do that the right way, much less an album. My fiancée is a pretty awesome song person here in Nashville, so between her, my producer, and me, I think it’s going to be a really great record. We’re being really strict on ourselves about the quality of each song. I can write an anthem, but they can’t all be like that. It dilutes the album. It took being in love for me to write a love song, happier, upbeat songs that people haven’t heard from me in a long time. Our goal is to release the record in January or February, and we’ll go back to radio on a smaller basis with the smaller markets.
JT: We’re almost out of time here, but thanks for talking with me, and thank you for your service.
KT: Thank you, it means a lot.
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