A salute to 10 years of S4S

Songs4Soldiers returns this weekend for its 10th year, now well-established as a Monroe County tradition.

The event has hit a number of milestones since it first began in 2013, with last year’s concert finally getting the total donations past the million dollar mark with $1.13 million donated to over 800 combat veterans and their families.

A number of major bands and music artists have also graced the stage at Columbia’s Bolm-Schuhkraft City Park, with big names like Everclear, Poison’s Brett Michaels, .38 Special, Night Ranger, Diamond Rio and Josh Turner appearing over the years.

This year’s event features award-winning country act Travis Tritt on Friday and classic rockers Cheap Trick on Saturday. 

S4S has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, and, as event founder Dustin Row described, it looks far different compared to its humble beginnings in the late 2000s.

Row himself is a veteran. He served in Iraq from 2004-2005 in a transportation unit which served as an armed escort primarily for fuel convoys.

As one might expect, the convoys were particularly big targets, and Row and his unit found themselves in a number of skirmishes during their tour.

He said he lost two friends during an especially bad attack, lost another who was captured as a prisoner of war and saw many of his other soldier friends wounded.

Row said he was lucky to return home to a warm welcome and strong support system, and, upon his return, he got right back into a life-long hobby of his: music.

“When I came home, I started working full-time, but then I also started playing in bands again, did a lot of fun tours and all that kind of stuff,” Row said. “I was kind of in the entertainment industry being a musician, but never as an event producer.”

One of the shows Row and his former band Where’s Charlie would be a part of was a relatively small charity event hosted at Tiny’s Pub & Grill in Columbia.

He’s now in annual S4S act Dazed N Confused STL.

Starting around 2008, this band would play there annually to gather donations for charity – though the event would eventually grow so large that they wound up moving outside the bar.

Row recalled losing another veteran friend to suicide during these years.

Prior to the move to the parking lot of Schnucks in Columbia, Row found himself fed up with many veteran organizations and charities who didn’t seem to have their focus truly placed on the veterans they were meant to be helping.

Thus, he began the nonprofit Songs4Soldiers, which saw its first big concert in 2013 – though the event would later find a home at Bolm-Schuhkraft Park.

As Row said, the name was originally meant to outline the organization’s precise mission, though growth saw them going well beyond helping just four soldiers.

“The name you see on all the stuff ‘songs, the number four, soldiers,’” Row said. “The reason why it’s that way is because we were just gonna help four people a year. Do a small show, help four veterans, when the money’s gone, it’s gone, and then just do that again. That was the original plan. That’s exactly what we did in 2013. 2014, we got more sponsorships, added some more bands, got a bigger stage, started doing some video work. I think we helped, like, 30 veterans the second year, and we raised, like, $30,000.”

Not only has the concert’s incredible growth over the years led to a staggering amount of donations to veterans but also a great deal of spectacle and excitement within the community.

The event, as it’s been organized lately, has involved a main stage at the central Columbia park coupled with a smaller stage for additional performances during the Friday and Saturday concerts.

Joined by numerous vendors and a couple attractions for the youngsters in attendance, the event has seen hundreds of people crowd in to enjoy a weekend of country and rock.

Of course, securing big name artists has been one of the most impressive parts of the Monroe County event.

Row specifically recalled how starstruck he was meeting Chris Shiflett – lead guitarist of the Foo Fighters – for the first time after trying to get him listed into the event during a side tour of his in 2019.

He similarly recalled how Shiflett and Jordan Davis reached out to personally thank him for the experience of playing S4S.

“It just still feels very much like I’m a 25-year-old kid asking for money to try to do a show,” Row said. “It’s incredible. I have plenty of moments where I just think about it, and it’s all really good thoughts and happy thoughts. It’s fun to look back on.”

While Row might be the founder of the organization and annual concert, he will be the first to admit the event is very much a group effort.

He spoke about how, along with the hundreds of volunteers and numerous sponsors for this event, he also has about 10 friends who have been with S4S from the start and who each have a major role to play during concert week throughout the year as the donations take place.

“It doesn’t remotely feel like mine anymore either,” Row said. “It feels like the town’s. It feels like the committee’s. It feels like the volunteers’. We’re just steering it a little bit, keeping it going. And that makes me really happy. I’m glad so many people feel pride in it, whether it’s their town or their county.”

One of Row’s close friends is Debbie Dillon, who chiefly helps with backstage operations during the concert and year-round oversees the organization’s donation checks and is part of the committee to discuss veteran assistance applications.

Dillon spoke about how it feels to have seen the event develop and grow as big as it has.

“To see it grow is so unbelievable,” Dillon said. “When you’re in a small town and county as well and people realize how important it is, it’s a very nice event. By word-of-mouth, it just gets bigger and bigger. So much support from the area. It’s quite amazing.”

Katie Amos, another friend in the S4S inner circle, also assists with backstage operations though she largely focuses on securing and supporting sponsors for the event as well as serving as secretary for the organization’s non-for-profit board.

Amos, who said she first became interested in S4S due to her own sense of patriotism, also expressed praise and pride for the concert’s growth, describing the unique atmosphere of the show.

“It’s exciting when everybody’s interested and excited with us,” Amos said. “We get to plan this really exciting, super fun event, and it’s an unusual charitable event. To be a part of it, it’s special… It’s a different energy. Most of us on the committee are super into live music, that’s a commonality between us. Concerts get into your body, they get in your blood. Our show is like that but tenfold because people are just excited about that fact you’re raising money, you’re coming together.”

As previously mentioned, S4S has assisted more than 800 combat veterans in some way, from helping to cover rent or utility bills to securing service dogs, cars and appliances.

One of the veterans who received assistance from the organization is Christopher Tettaton, who served four years in the Marines and three years in the Army, facing injuries throughout his service but ultimately being forced to retire after he suffered a brain injury as well as damage to his back and ankle in an attack on a convoy he was escorting.

Born, raised and still living in the St. Louis area, Tettaton went through the first surgery to repair his ankle in 2018, later getting a second surgery but still finding it difficult just to mow his lawn due to his injury and a troublesome hill on his property.

“I was telling my therapist at the time about my struggles taking a push mower up the hill,” Tettaton said. “I’m rolling my ankle. My ankle’s just not good. She knew about Songs4Soldiers, and she’s the one that called them and set it up initially.”

As outlined in a story on the S4S website, Tettaton was able to get a new zero-turn lawn mower in 2021 thanks to Bi-County Small Engine Center and Exmark Mowers.

He’s since started volunteering for S4S as a driver for the annual event’s talent, and he spoke quite highly of the organization as it compares to other veteran charity organizations he’s looked into.

While many such organizations make a big show of their work, Tettaton said S4S simply focuses on helping veterans as best they can.

“They’re awesome, I really don’t know how to put it in any other words,” Tettaton said. “The fact that they’re actually helping veterans. Dustin’s not taking any money off of this. He’s not making money. Genuinely, he’s really helping veterans that need the help. You don’t find that. You don’t find that anywhere else.”

With nine concerts, hundreds of veterans assisted and over $1 million donated, S4S has had a strong 10-year history that’s sure to continue with this coming concert and beyond.

While the show might see some unexpected changes going forward just as it’s experienced previously, Row can say with absolute certainty when the event will be leaving Columbia.

“Never, and never out of that park either,” Row said. “You’ll lose it, if it goes anywhere else, it won’t feel the same. It was where it was born and where it stays. If that show ends up getting to a point where it sells out right away in May or June, I’ll sleep like a baby all year, and I’ll be thrilled. And we’ll save thousands of dollars on marketing.”

Row further spoke to the future of S4S, with hopes to sell out a show, but the main goal staying the same: raising more money and helping more veterans.

“We have yet to sell out a show,” Row said. “We’ve been super close. We have a 5,000 cap each night, and we’ve totally flirted with that. Until we do that, obviously there’s room to grow… Obviously if it gets to a point where it grows and we could raise a little bit more money, we could totally do a Thursday night show out there or add Sunday. I think even where we’re at location-wise and as a charity, there’s still room to grow there, plenty. But honestly, we’re all pretty comfortable.”

For a full lineup of this weekend’s entertainment or to purchase tickets in advance, visit songs4soldiersstl.org.

Advanced tickets for Friday and Saturday are on sale for $30, with a weekend pass available for $50. Gate tickets will cost $35 the day of the show, and veterans get in free with a military ID and veteran ticket available online.

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web