A New Direction for Mary Gauthier
For a country singer who was abandoned at birth, given up for adoption, spent her 18th birthday in jail, and battled addictions for years, Mary Gauthier could single-handedly fill volumes and volumes of Nashville hits with heartbreak. Gauthier is Nashville’s top LGBT singer-songwriter, although she jokes that is an arguably small field. She wears her experience and identity on her sleeve, and that spills over from her heart to her music. Adoption, addiction, heartbreak, hobos, and the burning sugarcane fields of her native Thibodaux, Louisiana, are all in her music.
When Gauthier sat down with me to tell her story, she’d just come in from the road, traveling from Denmark to Hamburg, to Frankfort, to San Francisco, and to Anchorage, and then got on a train to tour on the rails with Richard Shindell, and the Cincy-based band Over the Rhine.
“I bet I flew 10,000 miles,” she said. “And then got on a train.”
At home in Nashville, Gautier is relaxing, listening to the wind blow through the trees of her adopted Tennessee. She had a few days to prep for the honor — and daunting task — of leading a songwriting session for the Country Hall of Fame at Nashville’s Americana Music convention.
“I woke up this morning at home and said ‘Lord, help me stay home this year.’ I got 20 offers that just flew in Friday. There’s so much road work for me. I gotta be honest: I’m tired, my knees hurt, my voice is tired, my body. I have got to stay home and write the book and it is hard for me to look at these offers and go ‘No’ but I have got to. It’s not easy.”
The book deal
Gauthier plans to take much of the next year to marshal her talents, skills, and gumption to write a book about songwriting for Yale University Press. She signed the contract; there’s no backing out.
“I’m a workaholic, you know. If I’m not working too much, I’m looking for a way to work too much — that’s the way. I think it’s my nature. At one time, I had three restaurants going. The nature of my work has changed a lot. I got a book deal, I’m going to have to learn to sit and write.
“It’s quite intimidating,” she adds. “[But] I just show up and do my best. It’s like playing the Opry. I stood on that stage. I just went ‘OK, here we go.’ … I’ve been elevated to the point where it’s not certain I can pull this off, but I’ll do my best. There’s something guiding me, helping me. You know, I just feel I got those angel wings on my shoulders. It’s just angels around me. I felt that way when I played the Newport Folk Festival the first time. There was some sort of something that had me, going ‘You got this, we got you. All together.’ It’s some sort of something strange, no word for it … I don’t know how to explain it except to say, ‘I’m not alone up there.'”
New way of life
This year, Gauthier celebrated 25 years in recovery. She didn’t write her first song until she was 35. Before embarking on music full-time, she ran a successful restaurant in Boston, called the Dixie Kitchen, for years. Her last brush with the law was a DUI on the night of a restaurant’s opening. She got sober and has been free from active addiction since. It hasn’t been easy, though it has helped produce one of her signature songs: “I Drink.”
“None of this would have been possible,” she says of her being on the wagon. “There’s just no way I’d have written a song if I didn’t get clean.”
She takes care of her disease with the 12 steps, fellowship, and contentment. There’s also a healthy dose of meditation, some hiking, and living life on life’s terms. “I still enjoy cooking,” she adds. “[And] being with my friends, and having dinner parties.”
Gay in Nashville
How easy is being gay in Nashville, the bastion of Country Music?
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I’ve been touring so much I haven’t been there much.” Mostly Gauthier hangs around her songwriting friends and 12-step recovery folk when she’s not on the road. “I’ve been accepted [in Nashville], been on the Opry stage five times. Nobody thought a gay person would pull that off — an openly gay person. Things have changed.
“I don’t know,” she adds. “I don’t go to bars. If there is a gay community [at the bars] I don’t know. I’m not in it. I’m in the songwriter community and a recovery community. I’ve never had a problem. “
Besides, she says, Nashville — with thousands of Garth Brooks wannabes –is all about the music.
“The rule in Nashville is, if you’ve got the song, you’re allowed in. Really good songs are really hard to come by. There are 34,000 songwriters working on that shit every single day. I showed up with ‘Mercy Now’ and ‘I Drink’ and they let me in, and I’ve been allowed in for the last while. I don’t think they gave a shit I’m a lesbian. I think what they care about is the songs. That’s where their priorities are. It’s songs. It’s [always been] Songtown and it’s still Songtown.”
Recently, Gauthier has been tackling a different issue: helping American veterans, sounded and stressed, make sense of their lives through music and songwriting. She’s done seven or so multi-day songwriting sessions with veterans around the country. She’s signed up to do three more before the end of the year.
“I love working with the veterans,” she says. “I love writing their stories. It’s time to put out these songs, they’re good. I think they’re real good. I’m at the end of writing about me for a while. For me, I have mined myself [enough].”
Songwriting with the soldiers allows her to examine more socially active songs. Go deeper than her “Burning Sugarcane,” the telling of the mighty role King Sugarcane played in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where the crop paved the roads and fed the town, but had a darker side, too.
“That’s what I’m hoping I can tap into, the Woody Guthrie-type song writing. Where you look out in the world and see an injustice and you write about it from a place of compassion. And find a way to tell a story. I think that’s what I’m doing with the veterans, and I think it’s taught me, how to do that. It’s taught me how to get out of the way. in some way and just listen to the story and tell the story. That, I think is a new level of maturity for a writer, for me. [I’m] so grateful for the opportunity to do it, to sit with them and write, get out of the way. There’s no Mary Gauthier in there. When I write with soldiers I try and stay out of the way, and not muck it up. What you have to do is really, really listen.”
Don’t expect Red, White and Blue, USA No. 1, from the album of soldier songs, which is tentatively set for a “probably 2017” release. Those who were injured in war — physically, mentally and spiritually — won’t glamorize combat. There won’t be a jingoist bent to the new effort, because “the soldiers don’t feel that way, those that served. If you were to talk to them, they don’t feel that way at all. … I believe that the stories we are getting from the veterans are the ones that are interesting and need to be told. Not the draft-dodging politicians — it’s the people who have been there.”
Joel Barrett: You’re adopted. Ever find your parents?
Mary Gauthier: I don’t know who my father was and my birth mother does not want to meet and is not interested in a relationship. I think it kind of killed me. I mean, the first time she gave me away. The second time was when she gave me away again.
I think we’re reborn many times in this life. Thank God, I’m an artist. I think that’s that function of art — in some ways, it’s a form of rebirth. [You] create, and recreate a world for yourself. It’s what artists do, it’s the nature of art, and I think artists are particularly wounded. The wounded are drawn to the arts.
Do you believe in a higher power?
Absolutely, but I can’t tell you what the hell it is. I just know I’m not alone.
What’s in your CD player right now?
Nothing, I’m listening to the wind blowing through the trees. I’m in stillness, preparing to write a book. What I’m doing is reading the best books I can find on writing, because I gotta write a book about writing.
You didn’t write your first song until 35?
Yep. I didn’t get sober until I was 27.
What one song would you like to be remembered for?
“Mercy Now.” So far, anyway.
What’s on the next album?
I think the next Mary Gauthier album is going to be the songs I’ve written with the veterans. It’ll be called either Soldiering On‘ or Halfway Home. Halfway Home has got hope, doesn’t it?”
What would you do for work if you couldn’t sing?
This whole thing has been a very mysterious journey. First of all, I’m unemployable, that’s why I ended up in the restaurant business. That’s where unemployable people go, restaurants or rough-necking for an oil company. Or, it turns out, the military, I don’t know. Or a writer. Books were my first form of escapes before the drugs and alcohol. I can see myself in love with language. For me, writing a book is a dream come true. I used to always want to see my name on a record, and now I want to see my name on a book.