Keni Thomas has spent nearly a decade in Nashville, a town so filled with so many genuinely gifted musicians it never ceases to amaze him.
"Oh, my gosh," the 48-year-old singer/songwriter said from the Music City. "There's talent in every direction you can shake a stick at."
Thomas and his old band, Cornbread, performed with artists such as Tracy Byrd, Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry among others, and he's sung with the Boston Pops and at the World Series, too.
Nashville has grown on the Gainesville native, all right.
"You can make a career out of it if you stick with it," the University of Florida graduate said. "The hardest part is it's like a road march. You'll get where you want, but it takes forever. One day you look around and you're part of it."
Thomas just released a new single, "Hold the Line." It's a ballad about people defining their place in the world, a compelling message he'll deliver
Thursday as the keynote speaker at the Legacy of Valor Celebration Luncheon, co-hosted by the Junior Leagues of Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Part of the song's inspiration was a retiring military officer, but the Floridian could've been writing about himself, a combat veteran and Bronze Star recipient.
"He said how it was a privilege to hold the line with men in his unit," Thomas said. "How you make a difference standing tall with people on your left and your right. Sometimes we forget we're the ones other people have surrounded themselves with. We're the ones being counted on."
Those words have resonated strongly with Thomas for 20 years.
In October 1993, he was with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia, part of a mission tasked with capturing warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in that strife-ridden African country.
But what began as a precision operation ruptured into an 18-hour street battle in Mogadishu, eventually immortalized in "Black Hawk Down," Mark Bowden's 1999 bestseller and Ridley Scott's 2001 hit movie.
Thomas remembered like it was yesterday.
"We got 12 bad guys, put them all in vehicles ... and were waiting for helicopters to come get us," he said. "Then one got shot down and that changed everything."
The subsequent rescue operation to recover the crews of two downed Black Hawks turned into a bloody overnight standoff with waves of armed Somali insurgents. U.S. forces suffered 18 dead, 80 wounded and one helicopter pilot captured.
What Thomas took away from that experience deepened his appreciation of the men he fought alongside.
"Young guys who were incredible leaders, guys who stepped up in battle, set an incredible example and saved a lot of lives," he said. "That's the core of the message: You fight for each other and that's what gets you home."
Thomas returned to Mogadishu in April and not only did it evoke old memories, it strengthened his core beliefs.
"It gave me renewed appreciation in God's hand getting us out -- how narrow it was, how tight and close-in the fighting was," he said. "It got pretty intense."
That Thomas survived the battle gave added purpose to his life's work in speech and song. He tells of the fallen whose ultimate sacrifice enabled him and others to get home.
"Everybody has seen something where some people didn't make it out," Thomas said. "You can spend the rest of your life with a weird sense of guilt. These were people who were better soldiers than I was. It can bury you, or you can grow past it and know you are fortunate and allowed to go on and be happy.
"If they were here? They'd tell you to drive on, do your part and hold the line."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix