It hasn't been easy getting Mary Gauthier on the phone. It's been a few days of trying to connect when a call finally goes through. Even then, the connection is not fantastic. I'm on the road in the rain. My voice recorder won't work. But what's happening is well worth discussing.
In roughly six weeks - Oct. 1, to be exact - Gauthier will join Catie Curtis and "a couple of comedians" (that would be "up-and-comers" Sarah Silverman and Russell Brand) for a concert at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. This show specifically will cap a nationwide series of concerts and events held Sep. 28-30 to celebrate and defend the separation of church and state.
What do country music and comedy have to do with church and state?
Well, for one, though she has made her living through music for nearly two decades, Curtis is also a mother of two. She and her partner don't have federal protections, rights, and responsibilities other married couples and parents have because of a Christian influence over the way laws are written and prioritized. Gauthier - who was, herself, adopted - would not have the right to adopt or foster a child of her own in some states due to the same religious posturing around laws.
While the marriage equality debate is certainly stirring up fire in Christian and non-believer circles alike, about how much influence the Bible should have over the Congress, there are plenty of other issues covered under this umbrella. Churches don't want a government telling them how to spend the money they've raised among their parishioners, for example. Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Atheists, Agnostic folks, and those who find faith elsewhere beyond theology and ancient texts, are disinterested in a government dictated by Christian ideas. The Christian Left doesn't want to be categorized by - and held to the expectations of - the Christian Right. And so on.
Where all of this intersects with music and comedy is in the center of the Venn Diagram of human expression. Art, humor, faith in something bigger - these are all impulses we have which allow us some level of comfort in a confusing world, which guide us and give us varying levels of security. Each individual relates to them differently, sees them stacked in different orders of import, but they are the lenses through which we all see the world - even those of us whose faith in something bigger isn't attached to the word god; even those of us whose faith is.
Where we can't find common ground in conversation and debate about faith, we can find it in humor and music. We can laugh at the absurd - as Silverman and Brand both tend to teach us - and transform the ugly and scary into the beautiful and possible through music.
"It's not a right or left thing," Gauthier explains. "It's what [this country] was founded on. It affects everyone."
I point out that her music doesn't tend to be overtly political. She pushes back, explaining anytime you open your mouth and, against all odds, share a story that tells the truth, it's a political thing. "I don't talk about my voting choices or tell people what to believe," she says, "but it's political." People can draw their own conclusions, as far as she's concerned, as long as they know why they're drawing them and respect the right of others to arrive at their own understandings.
Curtis, who has organized these 50 concerts in all 50 states to raise awareness and money for Voices United for the Separation of Church and State, would agree. "It’s not about bringing music into a forum for political issues. It’s really that music is one of those things that brings people together. It’s a community event. Once you have a reason to come together for fun, you can also bring together people who have a shared vision of what they want in this country. It’s empowering to put people together in one room and know there’s a goal of voicing your opinion and making sure this organization is strong enough to fight these battles."
"You know the Yeats quote?" she says. "'The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.' I think fundamentalist religions are able to drum up a lot of intensity and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it can be overwhelming to the rest of the population – not only in the US but across the world. We can be very academic in our discussion of that, but the thing about music is that it helps us to feel passionate. If, by sharing music with each other, we can wake ourselves up enough to know there are some important issues that together – sitting in this room – we can do something about. . . that’s the power music can have. Especially in a small concert setting. It can bring people together, awaken their passion, their vision for the country. By doing that we can get people to jump on board and support the answers to some of the problems we’re facing."
In addition to this concert upcoming in Los Angeles, others are happening across the land featuring artists like Janis Ian, Ellis Paul, Guy Davis, Caroline Aiken, John McCutcheon, Kris Delmhorst, Meg Hutchinson, Natalia Zukerman, Robby Hecht, Sara Hickman, A Fragile Tomorrow, and many more. Check out the Voices United website for a list of artists, dates, and concerts (or to organize one of your own).