David Butler saluted and honored the nine American flags that laid on the coffins of nine U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. He stood silent in honor of their ceremony, after the previous night when those soldiers and the rest of a U.S. Air Force base applauded his musical performance.
Butler said he was often confused about what his role was at the military bases they traveled to. His unit performed popular music, but his audience was fighting a war.
“It really made me wonder: what was my place in all of this?” Butler said. “I’m the entertainer while people are dying? It all just took me back.”
Butler, 26, is a Webster University audio production major. He said the Tops in Blue tour was his most demanding time in the Air Force.
In 2008, at 19 years old, Butler traveled to more than 60 countries with Tops in Blue, the elite Air Force musical group. The entertainment unit was made entirely of Air Force men and women. In his second year in the U.S. Air Force, Butler competed for and won a spot in Tops in Blue.
Each year, since 1953, Tops in Blue selects its members through a talent competition similar to “American Idol.” Butler said the final judgment is made after a solo performance in front of a crowd of 10,000 people in San Antonio, Texas.
All performers were split into categories depending on their talents: vocals, dance, instrumental or specialty ensemble. He won first place in the category of specialty ensemble because he sang and played the guitar.
The unit traveled every day or every other day. Sleeping on planes and buses was a standard, and lunch breaks were often unscheduled.
“I’ve told this story a lot, and there is still no way to explain how intense it was,” Butler said.
They performed in a 100-degree Middle Eastern summer and in a 10-below-zero, wind-chilled Greenland winter. The performers were also members of the set up crew, and some nights, stage breakdown was not completed until 2 a.m.
Butler learned about Tops in Blue when he saw a flier during his first year in the Air Force. Him finding music in the military was much like his first entertainment experience in high school. He landed the lead male role in “Guys and Dolls” without even applying for it. Butler said the teacher must have seen something that he did not.
Butler continued his time in the Air Force stationed in England, Portugal, Yemen and back at the U.S. in Altus, Okla. He was ordered to Yemen in early 2010, a deployment that ultimately led to his resurgence in music. Butler said during his six months in the Middle East, his longest deployment, he spent every free minute writing music.
“That was the time in my life where I just had the most to say,” Butler said.
Butler earned the opportunity to request any Air Force base in the world for his next post, so he requested Altus because it was the base nearest to Oklahoma City, the location of the studio that would produce his first record.
Every weekend for a year, Butler drove two hours into Oklahoma City and back, leaving each Friday after work and returning Sunday evenings. Freelance music producer Nguyen Vu produced Butler’s first album “Arrivals and Departures.” One of the most popular artists Vu works with is a Canadian band, “Down with Webster.”
“David is the most dedicated artist I have ever worked with,” Vu said. “This cat only sleeps when his body shuts down. I mean, he passed out on the guitar almost every night.”
Video by Sam Masterson/ The Journal
Butler and Vu estimate they wrote about 100 versions of the final 10 songs that made the album. Butler said most of the songs came from the things he thought about while he was deployed and after a rough breakup with his girlfriend.
Butler estimated he spent about $20,000 making his album and had close to nothing left over to promote it.
“I went into this saying ‘Ok, I guess it takes this much to make all this happen,’” Butler said. “But I learned the hard way.”
Butler promoted his record through YouTube and Facebook advertisements, but those only lasted a few weeks until Butler’s budget ran out. He said at Webster his goal is to learn all the music production and music theory he needs to create a second album and to have a better understanding of the business.
Butler said a second album is likely, but he is in no rush. He described the environment of creating his first record as pressured and said he felt obligated to create something that other people would like.
“Everything on the album was me and my real feelings,” Butler said. “But there is always this other side, and a thought about if other people are going to like it and buy it.”
Butler is in his second semester at Webster. His plan is to graduate with his audio production degree in just three years. Then he hopes to continue a career in music.
Webster audio major Eric Brooks said he wants to help Butler express himself even deeper through songs. The two plan to move in together and build their own recording studio this fall.
“We both already have a ton of instruments and a shared passion of music,” Brooks said. “Making our own place just seems natural.”
Butler said with a degree in audio production he will be able to produce his second album without the conflicts and disagreements with other producers.
“This time I will do a lot of things different,” Butler said. “Once I am done with school, I have even more to say than I did for the first album. I just need the time to put it together.”