Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.
Keni Thomas' new project, "Flags of Our Fathers: A Soldier's Story," is one of the best examples of art imitating life to ever emerge from Nashville.
Prior to signing with Brent Maher's Moraine Music Group, Thomas served in the Army as a special operations elite task force ranger. He was one of the soldiers who -— outnumbered 10-to-1 —- fought in the Somalia battle that inspired the film "Black Hawk Down." He received the bronze star for valor and the combat infantryman's badge.
After leaving the Army, Thomas worked as a counselor for troubled youth before becoming a military analyst for CNN, the History Channel and other outlets. He was a military adviser on the Mel Gibson film "We Were Soldiers" —- in which he also appeared -— and became a sought-after motivational speaker.
So how did Thomas end up as a country artist with an album of songs inspired by his military experiences? "It's the storyteller in me," the 35-year-old singer/songwriter says of the CD, due Jan. 25.
Thomas and his band, Cornbread, became hometown favorites in Columbus, Ga., and gained a national spotlight with an appearance in the Reese Witherspoon film "Sweet Home Alabama." But he credits Montgomery Gentry's Troy Gentry with encouraging him to give Nashville a try.
An attorney introduced him to Maher, whose production credits include the Judds, Kenny Rogers, Shelby Lynne and Ike & Tina Turner. Maher had expanded Moraine Music Group to include a label, and he signed Thomas.
"Brent was in the Air Force during Vietnam," says Thomas, who is booked by the William Morris Agency. "He's a passionate music guy, and he understands where I come from."
Thomas credits Maher with the idea of doing a themed album about his experiences in the military but admits he was initially reluctant.
"I was worried that it would be taken as being opportunistic [because of] the war," he says, "but the songs themselves are just stories. It's not an overly patriotic record trying to beat you over the head with it."
Produced by Maher and Mark Selby, "Flags of Our Fathers" features appearances by several guest artists, including Michael McDonald, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Shawn Mullins, BlackHawk and Kenny Rogers. Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris are featured on the single "Not Me."
Thomas is the national spokesman for the Hero Fund and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides college educations to children of special ops soldiers who are killed in combat or training. A portion of proceeds from "Flags of Our Fathers" will go to the Hero Fund.
Excerpted from the Jan. 22, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
For information about ordering a copy of the issue, click here.