After nearly giving up on her dreams of becoming a country music star, “American Idol” runner-up HunterGirl says she found the inspiration to change her mission and outlook from an unexpected source: a group of brave female veterans.
While pursuing a singing career in Nashville, HunterGirl — born Hunter Wolkonowski — discovered a passion for conducting music therapy sessions with military veterans. Through a variety of organizations, HunterGirl has worked with veterans since 2018 as part of the Freedom Sings USA program, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
In a June 2022 appearance on the “WHOA That’s Good” podcast with fellow reality TV star Sadie Robertson, HunterGirl explained that she sits down individually with veterans, listens to their stories, and then crafts and records a personalized song with them.
“The coolest part is getting to sing that song for the veteran and them getting to keep that forever,” she told Robertson.
Trailblazing Veterans Changed How HunterGirl Makes Music
When Freedom Sings USA realized there was a critical need for a songwriting class specifically for female veterans, HunterGirl jumped in and created it. Many of the group’s members enlisted in the military decades ago, blazing a path for other women to serve, so the class is aptly called Trailblazers. What HunterGirl didn’t expect is how these veterans would help her blaze her own trail to a greater sense of purpose.
HunterGirl said the veterans she’s worked with helped her shift her goals and clarify the mission behind her music. “My outlook on music completely changed when I started working with veterans,” she said in an April 22 “Insider” interview. “First, in your head, you’re like, ‘Am I singing this song right?’ or ‘Is it good enough?’ talking about yourself. My outlook changed to be, ‘What song’s gonna help them?'”
In her interview with Robertson, HunterGirl said songwriting with veterans has shown her just how much music can help and heal people, which she now believes is her life’s purpose. When she’s been faced with difficulties, she said, “I thought about giving up; but in those moments, I just remembered that I’m here for a reason and I want to write the songs that are going to help other people.”
Singing an original song during the “American Idol” finale reaffirmed that personal mission for her. As HunterGirl performed “Red Bird,” an original song she wrote about receiving sacred signs from loved ones in heaven, she was so glad its message touched the judges and crowd.
“I lost so many people in my family, and I had lost some veterans I’ve worked with, and when I was writing that song, I was thinking about everybody I had lost,” she told Robertson. “Sometimes you just need to know that you’re not alone in this world. So, getting to sing that song at the finale, I felt like that was that moment for me where that was why I was there and that was my purpose. I just want people to know that they’re not alone.”
Meet Some of the Trailblazers Who’ve Inspired HunterGirl
HunterGirl has used social media to celebrate some of the women she’s had the chance to work with. In 2019, she posted about her songwriting session with Lavone Johnson, sharing that the veteran “enlisted in the Army during Vietnam and was hired as a singer with a 32 piece band that traveled around to bases performing all over the United States. She still reminisces about the times being on stage singing for the soldiers while they were clapping their hands, dancing, and singing along. In a time of war, The 3rd United Soldiers Show allowed people to laugh and be happy just for a moment, in a time of complete chaos.”
The song HunterGirl wrote with the veteran performer was called “Following The Music,” which she performed while Johnson listened intently from a wheelchair. Freedom Sings USA said the experience provided Johnson a chance to relive her days on the stage before her death several months later.
Another veteran who touched HunterGirl’s heart was a woman named Bunny. Brought together for a songwriting session in July 2021, HunterGirl shared on Instagram that Bunny was one of the first women in the Air Force when she enlisted in 1950 at age 18.
“I asked her what she wanted people to know when they heard her song,” HunterGirl wrote. “And she said, ‘I want women in the military to know how proud I am of how far we have come in 70 years. I am so glad I lived long enough to see how everything has changed for the better.’ Bunny, thank you for sharing your story with me. I will remember you and our song forever. I love you so much!”
Despite her growing success as a country music star, HunterGirl has no plans to stop songwriting with veterans. On the “WHOA That’s Good” podcast, she told Robertson, “I love getting to work with them and I will continue to do that for the rest of my life because they’ve given up so much for us.”