Those who view art as life and life as suffering need only look to alt-country singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, whose rough start in life spawned gritty, often dark musical creations steeped in the suffering that is at the heart of country music. The self-described "angry young woman" spent her 18th birthday in jail, and many more years battling drug and alcohol addiction, and did not compose her first song until age 35. The South Louisiana native's "lost years" have nonetheless served as inspiration for several "country noir" albums and have sparked growing critical acclaim.
Mary Gauthier (pronounced "Go-Shay") was adopted at about age one by a couple in Thibodaux, Louisiana. According to Gauthier, her addition to the family wasn't the solution to an already troubled marriage that was further complicated by her adoptive father's alcoholism. "My adopted parents tried, but their marriage was doomed," she would later recall. "They ended up like zombies. Music saved my life."
As a high school student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the lack of understanding with her family extended to her neighborhood and most of her schoolmates. "I felt like an alien. But I found songs that spoke to me," she recalled. Her heroes were the "truth tellers," singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Neil Young, and John Prine. While she played the guitar and was considered to have a good voice, Gauthier wouldn't write her own songs for many years. She was more concerned with escaping "my parents' monotonous life in the cookie-cutter neighborhood with the cookie-cutter car and the cookie-cutter kids."
At age 15, she stole the family car to escape what she described as a chaotic homelife, and at 16, a growing alcohol problem had her in and out of detox and halfway houses, and again running away from home. At age 17 she stole something from a car, which temporarily landed her in a Kansas jail in time for her 18th birthday. For a good ten years, the high school dropout just "kept running."
With state aid, Gauthier was eventually able to enroll as a philosophy major at Louisiana State University (LSU). Studying philosophy taught her that there are no answers, "only good questions," an observation she would later apply as a songwriter. Recurring drug problems nonetheless forced her to drop out of LSU her senior year and head for Boston.
After a series of dead-end jobs, she attended the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and graduated to open a successful Cajun restaurant called Dixie Kitchen, in Boston's Back Bay area. During this period, she managed to kick her drug and alcohol habit. Finally clean and sober at age 35, and just coming out of a failed four-year relationship, something clicked. "It was like, bam, two neurons touched, fused, connected, and the next thing you know I'm obsessed with getting words down in a song to make sense of all this, to try and understand my own life," she said in a biography on her website.
Emboldened by her nascent songwriting skills, Gauthier hit the Boston coffee house circuit, where she tackled open mike night performances alongside performers often ten years her junior. Despite a rocky start in a town with a competitive folk scene, she kept returning week after week, and her restaurant obligations began to take a back seat to music. Her first album borrowed the name Dixie Kitchen. Released in 1997, the album made her a 1998 Boston Music Award nominee for Outstanding New Contemporary Folk Act.
Further encouraged by her success in such a competitive market, Gauthier took her songwriting a step further by going to study "at the feet of the masters." Workshops with the Nashville Songwriters Association helped her to further develop her craft, and her first major splash came in 1999 with her sophomore album. She sold her share in the restaurant to finance Drag Queens in Limousines, a record that paid homage to the characters she encountered as a runaway: "Drag queens in limousines, nuns in blue jeans/dreamers with big dreams, poets and AWOL marines/actors and barflies, writers with dark eyes/drunks that philosophize, these are my friends." The album brought rave reviews from music industry publications, and prizes such as an Independent Music Award in 2001 and a Gay and Lesbian American Music Award (GLAMA) for Best Country Music Artist in 2000. ("I got to tell y'all," she told Dirty Linen, "the competition was unbelievable.") It also got her places of honor on the folk festival circuit, both in the United States and in Europe. "Her voice, which can best be called 'whiskey throated,' reflects her Louisiana background, often with a hint of Southern country dialect. Her dynamic range is narrow. …the search for her natural singing voice and accent is still going on," wrote a reviewer for Sing Out!, upon the 2002 release of her third album, Filth & Fire. That album won further critical acclaim, with critics in the Freeform American Roots poll choosing her as female artist of the year.
One key figure in Gauthier's success has been Texas-based producer Gurf Morlix, also known for his work with country artist Lucinda Williams. Morlix and Gauthier's relationship began with her second album, and his instrumentation was key to the collaboration, as Gauthier was used to working as a solo artist. The singer also credited Morlix with teaching her the "spiritual process" of learning how to be an artist without getting lost in the demands of the marketplace.
Gauthier's major market entry came on the heels of a deal with the record label Lost Highway. While the company head reportedly offered her a deal overnight, after seeing her perform in Nashville, negotiations lasted for close to a year. In the meantime, Gauthier and Morlix produced her fourth album, Mercy Now, which the label bought (reportedly without influencing content) and released in 2005. The title song calls for mercy on those she loves: her brother, her father, her church, and her country ("as they sink into a poisoned pit/that's going to take forever to climb out"). In an interview with National Public Radio in 2005, Gauthier likened writing the title song to being in the right place at the right time, reeling in a fish that anyone could have caught. The album also revisited one of Gauthier's most popular songs, "I Drink": "Fish swim / Birds fly / Daddies yell / mamas cry /old men / sit and think / I drink."
The album left up in the air the question of which genre Gauthier belongs to. If Bostonians often saw her as a country artist, those in Nashville saw her as a folk artist. "It's hard to say whether she's a blues singer into country, or a country singer turned blue, but her sharp poetic words ring with truth, whether she's telling others' stories or her own," stated a review by the BBC in 2004. Gauthier herself has said she is not able to classify her sound, putting it somewhere between country (because of the music) and folk (because of the lyrics). While her anti-death penalty song "Karla Faye" may have created some division between her country and folk fans, she said her songs about women and heartbreak largely appeal to "cowboys." Even with four albums under her belt, she continued to seek out her own musical voice.
"When I first started out, I was doing my best Woody Guthrie, as well as Steve Earle and Merle Haggard and John Prine. You could smell it. Of course it was there. It's all starting to come together into this Mary Gauthier sound," she told Country Standard Time. "I'm finding my voice, which is really just an amalgamation of all these influences. … I'm just trying to sound like what all those guys would sound like blended into one girl."
In 2005 Gauthier continued to tour and promote her latest album. After shows in Canada in late March, she was scheduled to tour Europe until May, at which point she had performances lined up on the East Coast of the United States. She currently lives in Nashville.
Dixie Kitchen, R.G. Music, 1997.
Drag Queens in Limousines, Groove House, 1999.
Filth & Fire, Signature Sounds, 2002.
Mercy Now, Lost Highway, 2003.
For the Record …
Adopted at roughly age one by a couple in Thibodaux, LA. Education: Studied philosophy at Louisiana State University; graduated from Cambridge School of Culinary Arts; attended workshops with the Nashville Songwriters Association.
Began performing at open mike night performances in Boston in 1990s; released Dixie Kitchen in 1997, followed by Drag Queens in Limousines, 1999; Filth & Fire, 2002; and Mercy Now, 2005.
Awards: Gay and Lesbian American Music Award (GLAMA), for Best Country Music Artist, 2000; Independent Music Award, 2001.
Addresses: Management—Mark Rothbaum Artist Management, P.O. Box 2689, Danbury, CT 06813, phone: (203) 792-2400. Website—Mary Gauthier Official Website: http://www.marygauthier.com. E-mail—[email protected]
Advocate, November 7, 2000.
Dirty Linen, October 2001.
Sing Out!, Fall 2002.
"Mary Gauthier," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 23, 2005).
Mary Gauthier Official Website, http://www.marygauthier.com (March 23, 2005).
"Mercy Me…" Country Standard Time,http://www.countrystandardtime.com (March 23, 2005).
"Mercy Now," BBC—Folk & Country Review,http://www.bbc.co.uk (March 12, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, March 20, 2005.
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