Mary Gauthier thinks the best songs are ones that contain “a little movie,” songs that don’t just have their own story but also a sense of motion. The veteran songwriter knows a thing or two about good songs – ones that hit you right in the feels while making you think. Not that songwriting is easy for this Grammy-nominated artist. As she has repeatedly said in interviews, “Sometimes it’s just not pleasant. It’s hard.” Her listeners reap the rewards of her struggle.
Gauthier was born in New Orleans – she pronounces her name “go-shay,” Cajun style – in 1962, to a single mom who dropped her baby off at a home for infants. Although Mary did get adopted, her new father was an alcoholic. She got into drugs and alcohol before she even reached her teens. For the next couple of decades, her life was a battle with substances as she went in and out of rehab, tried to finish college but dropped out, and then went to culinary school. The day that her own restaurant was slated to open in 1990, she was arrested for drunk driving. That was finally what got her clean for good.
It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that Gauthier got serious about songwriting. By 1997, she was ready to self-release her first album, which she named Dixie Kitchen, after her restaurant. Her sound was country leaning toward bluegrass. Her warm, personable voice was as good at delivering upbeat humor as it was with darker melodies.
But it wasn’t so much the music as the subject matter that got people’s attention. Gauthier took real life head-on, without trying to pass gritty topics off wrapped in silk. Yet she never strayed from the musical conventions of her genre. “Goddamn HIV” is emblematic of her frequent use of commonplace country tropes to sing about modern issues that defy expectations within the tradition. Then again, don’t these topics fit? After all, loss of friends from a deadly disease is just another kind of heartache, and heartache has always been a specialty of country.
“Mama Louisianna” is full of longing for Gauthier’s home state. It’s slow, march-like beat makes a framework for the fiddling of Matt Leavenworth.
Now that she had an album out in the world, Gauthier was hellbent on a music career. She sold her restaurant in 1998 and used the money to record and release another album, Drag Queens in Limousines. The critics were starting to take notice, and the title song won her the 1999 Best Country Song award at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards (GLAMA).
On her website Gauthier explains how that song is a coming-of-age story about growing up in the South, but it was inspired by a trip to New York City where she played a gig to an audience of two and saw plenty of limousines and drag queens. Her ability to take random life experiences and weave them into meaningful metaphors is what makes Gauthier’s songs so good – she has mastered the art of using minutiae to express universals.
Drag Queens in Limousines gave Gauthier’s career a needed bump: she landed lots of gigs nationwide and a music-publishing deal. Now she could move to Nashville and also afford an excellent producer, Gurf Morlix, who had previously worked with Lucinda Williams. The first result of this collaboration was Filth and Fire (2002).
The arrangements and sound production are several steps up from the first two albums. The songwriting remains moving and personal, focused on the South and the individuals, often downtrodden, who give it character. “Sugar Cane” recalls Gauthier’s Louisiana childhood and the annual burning of sugar cane to clear off the leaves and make it easier to harvest. The dirty, thick air comes to represent her family’s rough life.
Thanks to her growing success, Gauthier was able to sign with a record company for the first time, Universal’s subsidiary Lost Highway. Her first album with them, Mercy Now (2005), got everybody’s attention. It’s packed with songs of breathtaking power that rely on patience and efficiency of words and melody; the performance is never over the top, which somehow gives the music more emotional punch.
“Just Say She’s a Rhymer” is an old-fashioned breakup song from the point of view of the one leaving. The poignant, sliding fiddle solo is by Eamonn McLoughlin.
Between Daylight and Dark came out in 2007, followed three years later by The Foundling. Gauthier’s sales numbers started to run parallel with her critical success. The Foundling reached No. 13 on the Billboard Americana chart.
That album is Gauthier’s attempt to deal with knowing she was abandoned as an infant, and figuring out how it affected her as she developed into her own person. On this record, she called on some gifted colleagues to co-write a few of the songs, including Darrel Scott and Crit Harmon.
The choice of the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins as producer led to a scaled-back, bare-bones sound that perfectly displays the angst of self-discovery. “Sideshow,” co-written with Liz Rose, uses a trombone to harken back to New Orleans. The lyrics deal with some of life’s inherent paradoxes: “Too many songs about happiness/leave me sad and lonely and depressed.”
After 2014’s Trouble and Love, which also charted well, Gauthier’s next release was a labor of love that gave music the role of healing agent. The songs on Rifles & Rosary Beads (2018) were co-written with US veterans and their families. This was an outgrowth of a project called Songwriting with Soldiers, a music therapy effort founded by Americana songwriter Darden Smith which Gauthier had been involved in for several years.
It’s interesting to see Gauthier in a different mode. All her previous songs focus on her own experiences, but on this collection her job was to help others find their voice. The topics, understandably, can be tough and painful. “Morphine 1-2” tells the story of a pilot whose plane went down, killing seven people.
At last, Gauthier was nominated for a Grammy Award, although she lost the Best Folk Album category to the Punch Brothers’ All Ashore. (If it was any consolation, fellow nominee Joan Baez also got passed over that year.)
The release of Gauthier’s new album, Dark Enough to See the Stars, is right around the corner. Its advance singles, “Amsterdam” and “Fall Apart World,” hint that her worldview may be taking a more optimistic turn, which is a remarkable accomplishment in these troubled times.
Header image courtesy of Alexa Kinigopoulos.