Mary Gauthier – Late train to mercy
Sometimes, for an instant or longer, when the music was just exactly right, it was possible to lose one’s self in the press of great punk rock. Whole seconds might pass in the pulsing crowd, strangers coiled and bruising on all sides, dank smells and powerful sounds overwhelming the constant chatter of consciousness. Overwhelming every single impulse, save the moment.
Occasionally the words mattered, a refrain serving as the centering chant; sometimes the physicality of the music itself swept every other thing to the side. Regardless, we were there together (or so it seemed), bound by tendrils of fury and joy and an imagined unity of purpose.
This is not the same as being part of a mob. It does not last as long, and is not an unthinking, amoral, unfeeling abandonment of self. But it is a moment of spectacular unity and freedom, and it is evanescent.
And one day, like most young love, it slips away altogether and cannot be recaptured.
One evening you linger on the couch and spin memories, staying out of the night. Some time later you discover you’d really rather stay home, that too few of the strangers in the crowd are familiar, that the more private companionship of marriage and family, or the exhaustion of merely making a living, or an aging back and knees — or all of them — have sated your desire (or capacity) to be swept away in the froth of the crowd.
And that the crowd itself has changed.
Ah, but getting older is not the same as giving up, no matter what they say on TV.
For many, music becomes simply a set of markers to be manipulated by canny advertisers. The rest of us gather in peculiar communities such as this, for our lives still demand expression, and the habits of our quest will be put to sleep no more easily than a hungry child.
And so we are drawn to explore the simpler yet complex power and, yes, the sheer transcendence of great songwriting, though we now listen in the stolen privacy of midnight headphones or solitary drives, and the songs that touch us now may not so easily be shared.
Every once in a while, if we are very lucky, this is what we will hear:
sit and think
— “I Drink”
It is the rare kind of song which produces, in the words of its co-author, Mary Gauthier, a physical reaction to the truth. If there is time, you may pull to the side of the road and cry, or stare blankly into the night sky. We have all lost friends, by now.
In 1982, Mary Gauthier hopped on her motorcycle and rode from Baton Rouge to New Orleans (it takes about an hour and a half if you observe the speed limit), where she saw the Clash and, she thinks, probably, Iggy Pop on the Riverboat President.
“It was so freaking loud,” she says, and then leans back into the corner of a dark leather couch and lets her piercing blue eyes go quiet. Takes a long moment to reflect. “I was part of that thing back then,” she continues, almost tenderly, “the black T-shirt angry kid thing. We were drunk and stoned, on the highway, on a motorcycle, and I was doing my Kerouac thing.”
The dark leather couch is in Harlan Howard’s office, a large, neat room filled with tastefully masculine furniture, the walls covered with photographs of friends, only the tidiness of his great desk reminding an observer that Nashville’s preeminent songwriter died on March 3, 2002.
The road has taken Mary Gauthier many places, none less likely than this room. Adopted into an unhappy Thibodaux, Louisiana, family, she left home early and has so far explored life as, among other things, a drunk, a philosophy student, a house painter, a drug addict, a Boston restaurateur, a sober person, an aspiring songwriter and a well-traveled singer. Today she sparkles with life, lives in Nashville, and writes for Harlan Howard Songs. At 42, seven years after finishing her first song, she will make her major-label debut with Mercy Now, due from Lost Highway on February 15.
The knowing calm with which she sings “I Drink”, a meditation on what her life might have been like had she not quit at 28, is devastating. The great care and patience with which it was written mark her as — potentially — a great songwriter.
“The simplest song I’ve ever written,” she says dryly. “Of course everybody thinks the character’s me, and there’s a lot of me in there, but in my mind the character’s a guy. I had him say three or four hundred things before I got to ‘I know what I am/And I don’t give a damn.’ Finally I found it. I was looking for it everywhere, I couldn’t find it. I came close so many times, but it wasn’t it. So I just kept looking.”
“I Drink” took something over a year to write, and she shares credit with her first producer and mentor, Crit Harmon. It initially appeared on her second album, 1999’s Drag Queens In Limousines. It has been recorded by two other artists since then — Australian Bill Chambers (Kasey’s dad) on his 2003 disc Sleeping With The Blues, and mainstream country singer Blake Shelton on his 2004 Warner Bros. release Barn & Grill.
“I heard Mary one night at an open mike night,” Harmon recalls via e-mail. “I was there to see someone else and she got up and sang the song ‘Goddamn HIV’. I thought that the song was great. In a fateful coincidence later on that very week, I ran into her at a songwriting seminar given by Ralph Murphy and introduced myself. A mutual friend brought us together a third time soon after and we started hanging out. I worked with her because I liked her songwriting and I liked hanging out with her.”
She was raw, of course, and driven. “When I met Mary she was already running a successful business,” Harmon writes. “She was already very much an adult in the business sense, and she’s carried this over into her music career. And she has always been extremely motivated.”
Which isn’t the same as knowing quite what she was doing, yet. “I made my first CD before I’d ever played a gig,” she says. “I’d played open mikes, waiting four hours to play one song, but I’d not played a gig. Didn’t have the material or the courage at that point. I thought you needed a record to get a gig. Everybody I knew who was playing gigs had records.”
That 1997 debut, Dixie Kitchen, was a primitive kind of cross-marketing, named for her Boston restaurant and containing a business card promising one free dessert (and the recipe for the Dixie Kitchen’s bread pudding). “The restaurant’s gone,” she cackles. “You missed out. I probably sold 20 of those records. I tried, but…I was a cook, I wasn’t a singer-songwriter. I was just horrible.”
Well, kinda. But every once in a while a line steps out — “You didn’t want the need that I gave you” or “Yeah there’s times in my life when I still feel every goodbye” — and announces the presence of a writer who might later be worth paying attention to. And there’s one carefully rendered, lovingly delivered song about the early days of AIDS, “Skeleton Town”.
Harmon, who has figured in the early careers of Martin Sexton, Jess Klein and Lori McKenna, was exactly who she needed. (“I like to consider myself more of a protector than a teacher,” he writes.)
Drag Queens In Limousines took longer to write, and Gauthier sold her share in the Dixie Kitchen to pay for it. It’s a tighter record, filled with smart songs about broken love and careful portraits of society’s castoffs. And, four tracks in, was the debut of “I Drink”.
Though she doesn’t, anymore, “I Drink” has become Mary Gauthier’s signature song. It has opened a series of doors in her improbable (but hard-earned) second career and, recorded anew, will become the first single on her new album.
The title track, “Mercy Now”, is better.
Most of the characters who have populated Gauthier’s four releases would feel at home in the small rooms inhabited by the protagonist of “I Drink”. Some would aspire to such comfort. Much of her catalogue is filled with stories of broken love, written with such detail that an incautious listener will assume they’re autobiographical. The rest consists of closely observed vignettes from the land of the unloved.
It is the love songs, ever sharper, which frame Mercy Now, from an opening recitation (“Falling Out Of Love”) to the spectacular “Drop In The Bucket” (“Happy anniversary, baby/It’s been a year now since you went away/Even though I asked you to go/I still miss you every day”).
No wonder Ray Wylie Hubbard told Gurf Morlix he needed to pay attention to this woman who wrote like Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down” from the inside, and so he might’ve written “I Drink”. Nobody but Mary Gauthier could have written “Mercy Now”. It is either the best work she will ever do, or evidence of how significant a songwriter she may yet become.
“Yeah! Where’d that come from?” she says, still electrified by that discovery, almost two years later. “Maybe as human beings we grow without being aware of how it happens. One song leads to another leads to another. Hopefully I’m learning the craft, but I didn’t set out to do that. No, I did set out to learn the craft, but I didn’t set out to write something different than I’ve ever written before.”
Like all of her songs, like almost all great songs, “Mercy Now” emerged, initially, from the particular circumstances of her life. “I was at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia,” she remembers. “I was in a little hotel room there, plucking around on my guitar and thinking about my dad, who has Alzheimer’s and is no longer able to speak and just sits in a wheelchair and looks at his feet. It was just starting at that time, about two years ago [July], and he was going down fast.
“I was thinking about him, and I was plucking around on some strings, and I thought, gosh, my daddy could use some mercy, I wish God would show him some mercy. And then I thought about the rest of my family and the suffering that they go through, and then somehow the lens started pulling back. Not just my family, oh my god, it works on the micro and it works on the macro. The hook, the title line works as you pull the camera lens back. And it was extremely exciting for me to see that it worked. What’s that Lucinda song, ‘I’m going to change the tracks on this train?'”
“Changed The Locks”.
“I think that’s where that technique first was introduced to me. I know she probably got it from an old blues song.”
Mary Gauthier took the stage for the first time in 1982, the same year she saw the Clash. “I played for a little while in a band called Blue Light Special. They kicked me out because they found a harmonica player who could sing,” she says with another laugh. “It was fun, though.
“We played in an old bar in Baton Rouge called Tabby’s Blues Box. Tabby Thomas, at the time, was a local blues guy, a local celebrity of sorts. The bar was a piece of plywood hung onto two sawhorses. You could either get whiskey or beer, that was the whole story of the bar. But Tabby is Chris Thomas King’s father, so the whole thing grew into something which is bigger after Chris became a celebrity, I guess.”
About that same time, Gauthier began a somewhat irregular course of studies at LSU that lasted four or five years. “I’m not a very disciplined person,” she says, “so I just wouldn’t take classes that didn’t interest me, which makes it hard to get a degree. I just stayed around doing things I loved at school, taking teachers instead of classes. The philosophy teachers were the ones that spoke to me in a way that kept my attention.
“I love the whole Greek way of thinking, and then I fell in love with the existentialists, and then I became a drug addict, and then I quit school.” There’s another laugh. “It was sort of a downward spiral after existentialism. Actually, revisiting Nietzsche sober is cool. I get it better now.”
But mostly she ran. Stole her mother’s car, ended up in a detox unit for her 16th birthday. Broke into somebody else’s car, spent her 18th birthday in jail. Ran with drag queens and strippers and drug addicts and ended up waitressing in Boston. Then managing the place.
That led to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and, with backers, to opening the Dixie Kitchen (the name a reminder that music still fascinated her) located near the Berklee School of Music. She got a DUI the night the restaurant opened, and at 28, finally found a sobriety that lasted.
Then another relationship ended badly and she picked up a guitar, instead of a bottle.
“The strange thing that I can’t really explain,” she says, “is that I always thought of myself as a writer, even though I didn’t write. There’s just no way to explain that, and I don’t understand it. Deep down inside I always knew I was a word person and I was a writer. I tried to write, but I never wrote. I would start to write and then just tear up the paper and throw it away. I didn’t have the focus. And the discipline that it takes, I didn’t have the discipline.
“I thought you were supposed to be like Dylan, writing ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ in the cab on the way to the studio. And if you didn’t have that, then you weren’t any good and you shouldn’t be a writer. I didn’t get the discipline until I was sober.”
Much later it is suggested that the discipline required to stay sober helped her to write. She sinks back into the couch and turns it over. “I’ve talked about this a lot, and I’ve never put that together,” she answers, finally. “I would have never had the discipline, because I’m just not a natural talent. I don’t just flow great songs. For me, it’s work.”
Somewhere between her second and third records, Gauthier found her voice. Yes, as a writer, but principally as a singer. “The weird paradox,” she says, “is that’s when I quit trying to sing. My whole problem was I was trying to sing, and all you could hear was the trying. You couldn’t hear the singing; the trying transcended everything.” She laughs.
“It’s painful for me to listen to sometimes because I know what I was doing, and I was filled with fear of being a bad singer, and I was so afraid of my lack of singing ability that all you could hear was the fear and the effort. As soon as I just accepted my fate as what it is, this is the voice I have and I’ll just lighten it up and not try and just deliver the lines in a way that’s sincere, and get all of the posturing out of the way, suddenly it’s palatable. I’ll never be a great singer, but I can be a believable singer.”
She also changed producers, heeding the advice of Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard that she oughtta meet this guy in Austin, Gurf Morlix. The guy, as it happens, who produced Lucinda Williams’ “Changed The Locks”. (“There are obvious comparisons,” Morlix says of the two, “being literate southern writers and working with me, but that’s about as far as it really goes.”)
“That was part of her need to move on and be around people who specialize in her kind of music,” writes Harmon. “But I was always for it. Anything to bring success to her and (in my own self interest!) the songs we wrote together.”
“Ray brought her over,” says Morlix, taking a few moments on the phone before heading to the studio. “And we just hit it off. We sat around and talked for a couple hours. Actually, in that first encounter, we decided to make a record together in a couple of months.”
“He was,” as Gauthier puts it, “the next right person to work with. I am so lucky to have friends that were able to help me see what I need to do next.”
Filth & Fire, which came out in 2002 on Signature Sounds, was their first collaboration. John Pareles of The New York Times picked it as the best indie release of the year, and maybe it was. Certainly it was a huge step forward, and a kind of summary restatement of its predecessors. The same themes abound, only the songs are much richer, and they sound it. The loving and leaving numbers (notably “A Long Way To Fall” and “After You’re Gone”) are almost classic country constructions, while the downtrodden short stories (“Camelot Motel”, “Christmas In Paradise”) have the hard clarity of early Tom Waits.
Harmon had responded to her southern accent and the cadence of her words by placing something like country music around her. Working in Austin (instead of Boston), Morlix has a more sure hand on that vocabulary.
Because Gauthier tours almost exclusively as a solo act and has rarely functioned as a bandleader, Morlix’s role in the studio is particularly important. “When we start making a record,” he says, “it’s just her and me. We’re not sitting there with five musicians playing along, making it foreign to what she’s used to. She just plays her songs and we sorta build ’em from there. I try to be judicious with it; I don’t wanna hit anybody on the head with anything or make anything stand out.
“My whole deal is to serve the song and make it as good as can be. Mary knows if something’s not right. Anything that she didn’t like, then that would go away, but we’ve had pretty good luck.”
Gauthier relocated from Boston to Nashville in September 2001. “I moved to Nashville because of publishing,” she says. “However, I didn’t know what publishing was; I just knew that I needed to know what publishing is. I knew that, in the music business, that’s where the money is. And so that’s why I didn’t move to Austin, because all the publishers are here in Nashville.
“So my manager at the time, and the publicist I was working with at the time, Lisa Shively, got together and said, ‘Who would consider the bizarre songs of Mary Gauthier as a publisher?’ They came up with a list of about 60 companies that might, with maybe five that there’s a good chance. So they mailed out all my stuff and they got no response.
“We looked at the list again, and I said, ‘You know, of all these companies, Harlan Howard Songs, if there’s anybody I can relate to as a songwriter it’s Harlan Howard. There’s so many of his songs that I honestly feel as though I coulda written.”
That will seem more bold in print than it does in person. She recorded one of Howard’s songs (a previously unrecorded tune called “Just Say She’s A Rhymer”), and Fred Eaglesmith’s “Your Sister Cried”, for Mercy Now; both sound very much like Mary Gauthier songs when she sings them.
“So I had Lisa and my manager call over here and try to get me an appointment,” she continues. “Melanie [Smith Howard, Harlan’s widow and fifth wife] hadn’t listened to anything that was sent over, and she hurried up and listened, and I got an appointment. She heard the song ‘I Drink’, and that did it.” Gauthier joined a songwriting roster that now includes Lori McKenna and Lisa Scott.
The original version of Mercy Now was finished in October 2003, without a deal in hand. “I played the Bluebird in December, and Melanie brought [Lost Highway label head] Luke Lewis. Lost Highway, the next day, e-mailed and said, ‘We’d love to have you as a member of the Lost Highway family.'”
While lawyers spent eight months discussing contract language, Gauthier kept writing, and listening, and learning. She dropped two tracks from her original conception of the album (an anti-Nashville country screed called “Ain’t Got Heart” and a very good song about second-chance love, “Too Soon To Tell”). In their place she added the Harlan Howard tune and a new one of her own, “Prayer Without Words”.
And then, she allowed Guy Clark’s vocals to be removed from her new version of “I Drink”. All things considered, it wasn’t much to ask, but it was still a lot to ask.
“They took Guy Clark off,” she says, very softly, very sadly. “I would never, never, never take Guy Clark off. No way. It was such an honor to have him come sing with me. They want to do ‘I Drink’ as a single, and so they want it to be just me. It’s a corporate decision that I don’t…they bought the record, it’s their record.
“It’s their money, it’s part of the deal. Fortunately, Lost Highway is not a terribly controlling and commercial label. They don’t care what you look like, they don’t care that you’re old, they don’t care about most of the things that the labels in this town are concerned with. Ultimately, I can’t complain, I’m just thrilled to be working with them.
“It’s going to help improve my visibility and my quality of life. I won’t have to stay indefinitely at the Camelot Motel. They’ll pull me up a little way out of the toilets for a while, anyway. As long as it lasts.”
The wall behind Harlan Howard’s empty desk is covered with dark cherry built-in bookcases. Behind the doors of the bottom shelves, Mary says, are stacks of CDs containing demos of his roughly 4,500 songs. Only about a thousand of them have been cut, including (just to pick a handful from his own 1965 Monument LP, All Time Favorite Country Songwriter) “Busted”, “Heartaches By The Number”, “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail” (co-written with Buck Owens), “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” and “I Fall To Pieces” (co-written with Hank Cochran).
Gauthier has been spending a lot of time in her publisher’s office, listening. “The demos are from every decade that he wrote in town, starting in the early ’50s,” she says. “The demo singers, everyone from the Judds before they had their record deal to Tompall Glaser [with whom Howard co-wrote “The Streets Of Baltimore”] to Rodney Crowell and Kevin Welch to Vince Gill. You can tell from the instrumentation what decade it is, and it’s just awesome.
“It’s like a history of songwriting. It’s a heck of an education to just sit back and listen to ’em. His batting average is so high, you know, Harlan used to say that he had an eighth-grade education and he really didn’t know how to play the guitar, and those were his two strongest assets as a songwriter.”
(At least one of those claims wasn’t true; he finished high school, and was said to be a voracious reader.)
“His emphasis had to be on the words. I agree. I agree that the simplicity with which he approached the songs was the genius, and made his songs universal. He was able to get to the heart of the matter. He’d write from the title, and his songs were always about one thing: The title. He wasn’t writing Dylan songs, you know? If the title is ‘I Fall To Pieces’, the song is about falling to pieces. Two and a half minutes, boom, done. So he’s got like 3500 of them in there that haven’t been cut yet. I found one that I loved, called ‘Just Say He’s A Rhymer’ — of course he wrote it about himself and one of his five marriages that didn’t work out, and it just spoke to me.”
Of course it does. She has spent much of her life on the road, first running, then touring. Now she must grapple with the possibility of having found a home in Nashville. She sighs. “I think I’ve found it. I hope I’ve found it. I’ve always had a very antagonistic relationship with any idea of home but I think I’ve found it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it all unraveled and I had to keep moving, but I think I found it.”
Gauthier has been listening carefully to Howard not simply as an astute student of songwriting, but because her publisher, his widow, has entrusted her with a banker’s box full of his notes. Unfinished songs. Cocktail napkins, mostly, with overheard phrases written in his left-handed scrawl in spreading felt-tip pen. She has talked about recording an entire album of these songs, though at the moment only one is finished.
“Mary is always thinking like a student,” Harmon writes. “She is trying to learn as much as she can from everyone she comes in contact with. That’s a big reason for her success.”
Though her albums have always been country-tinged full-band affairs, her live shows almost always find her alone on the stage with her guitar. With the possibility of some major label tour support, that may change. Slightly.
“I’ve been out for two or three weeks now with John Prine,” she says. “He’s got two guys, and that seems to be manageable, and it’s a full enough sound for what he’s doing. What I don’t want to have, and what I can’t handle emotionally or mentally, is an entourage of people. I just don’t want to be an employer anymore at that level. The restaurant just killed the need for me to ever to do that again.
“I like simplicity. I need simplicity. I get really stressed out and worked up if there’s all these competing needs and demands put on me. With the restaurant I had 22 employees, they all had families and needs and wants and I’ve been responsible for a lot of people, before. And, to be honest, I don’t like it. I prefer to keep it real simple.”
That simplicity, in part, is how she stays sober. “I’ve been rendered neutral when it comes to drugs and alcohol. I’m not drawn or repelled. And that’s based on my spiritual condition, so I’ve gotta make sure that I’m spiritually in good shape. That I’m not too hungry, not too angry, not too lonely, not too tired, not too worked up. Then I’m OK. If I let my soul get out of whack, then I become vulnerable again.”
Vulnerable is not a word one would choose to describe the woman so clearly at ease on Harlan Howard’s couch, so clearly at one with herself. Fearless, maybe. (Perhaps both, in equal measure.)
“I could fail dismally. It has [not worked] for a lot of people on this label. I don’t see an end to the pain,” she says, and then she laughs wildly. “Dreams coming true don’t end your pain. Brings me back to that Fred Eaglesmith song — ‘Alcohol and pills, it’s a crying shame, you think they might have been happy with the glory and the fame.’ Fame doesn’t take away the pain, it just pays the bills.”
Grant Alden is co-editor and art director of No Depression. His brother, too, could sure use a little mercy.