LOUISIANA FIRE: Mary Gauthier’s story is marked by her survival


By Steve Wildsmith
of The Daily Times Staff

Once upon a time, there was a girl growing up in Louisiana who ran away from home.

Abandoned by her birth mother, raised by adoptive parents and schooled in a life of hard knocks by an adolescence of addiction, she went through a series of life changes before writing her first song at 35.

That was 10 years ago. Today, Gauthier is a celebrated singer-songwriter whose 2005 album, “Mercy Now” — her first for the Lost Highway label — wound up on the year-end “best-of” lists of numerous national critics. She’s been lauded by her peers for her amazing songwriting abilities; the legendary Bob Dylan even played her song “I Drink” on his satellite radio show, reading the lyrics over the air in a “Twilight Zone” moment that Gauthier will never forget.

Yet no matter how far she’s come from the girl who stole her parents car and disappeared into the Louisiana night at 15, she still carries her past with her. It doesn’t weigh heavy on her shoulders, but it still fits, like an old and worn jacket that always seem to turn up in the back of the closet.

She’s still asked about it, even though she’d rather talk about most anything else. And she still writes about it, even though she has five albums under her belt and an entirely new life that she’s made for herself.

“It’s made me who I am, but I don’t want to keep telling that story,” Gauthier told The Daily Times this week. “I’ve told that story enough. Now, I guess I want to present who I am today. Who I am now is totally informed by my destructive years, but those years are behind me. I can’t dwell on it. I want to look ahead.”

It’s a gray Tuesday morning, and Gauthier speaks by phone from Nashville. Her voice is hoarse and raspy; she apologizes for a bout of laryngitis (“I’m sorry it sounds like I got hit by a truck,” she says) and gathers her words carefully before answering — not wanting to waste a needless syllable.

Her songs are a lot like that. With an eye for detail, she draws on the dreams and nightmares of her past and the observations and insight she gathers in the present. The result are collections of story-songs that rival those penned by some of the most successful of her peers — Bruce Springsteen, John Prine and Dylan.

Born in 1962, Gauthier (pronounced “go-shay”) was adopted by an Italian Catholic couple in Thibodaux, La. After running away at 15, she spent the next several years in halfway houses, treatment centers and on the couches of friends. Her 18th birthday was spent behind bars, and every time she tried to straighten up, her battle with drugs and alcohol always dragged her back into the abyss.

She attended Louisiana State University as a philosophy major, but after five years, she dropped out due to drug problems and moved to Boston. There, she turned a corner — working her way up from waitress to manager at a restaurant, she secured financial backing and went to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.

She opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston, and on the side she began dabbling in songwriting. Her first album, “Dixie Kitchen,” was named after her restaurant. At that point, the muse demanded her full attention, and she sold her stake in the joint to finance her second album, “Drag Queens in Limousines.” Her 2002 album, “Filth and Fire,” got her noticed by the major labels, and after 2005’s “Mercy Now,” she was suddenly hailed as a brilliant new voice in Americana songwriting.

Following that up might have been daunting for some artists, but Gauthier didn’t let the acclaim for “Mercy Now” go to her head. She simply went to work on her next batch of songs, released earlier this year as the album “Between Daylight and Dark.”

“I try not to think of any of that and just try to write what’s happening now and be honest and true to what I’m going through at the current moment,” she said. “I just try to capture the moonbeams, because they’re still out there. I haven’t written my masterpiece yet, but I’m still working on it.

“I won’t know what it is until I get there, but I think I’m getting closer. Although I bet most artists feel like they never get there.”

Those other artists provide her with inspiration, she added. Guys Malcolm Holcombe and Fred Eaglesmith draw her attention for their detail, something Gauthier uses to great success in her own songs.

“I’m all over the map; I don’t really listen to a certain style,” she said. “I’m looking for someone that speaks my language, and that shifts a lot. I love poets, especially songwriter-poets. I like word people. Somebody like Bruce Springsteen is great, and he has the added touch of being commercial.

“For me, I can’t go there. I don’t even know what commercial success means. It’s just outside of my reference ability. I don’t know how to write hits. If something accidentally happens, I’ll be thrilled, but I can’t try to do it. I just don’t know how, even though I wish I did.”

It helps, she added, to get airplay on stations like WDVX-FM. The grassroots station, broadcasting out of Knoxville, will host Gauthier on Tuesday as part of the “Blue Plate Special,” a lunch-time program that’s broadcast live and taped in front of studio audience. It’s free to attend; just show up at noon and enjoy the show.

“I did WDVX about a year ago, and it was great,” she said. “It’s just an awesome little station; only it’s not so little anymore. They’ve come full circle, and they’re vital to artists like myself. I don’t what people like me would do without them.”

So far, Gauthier is already looking ahead to her next album. She’s not in any hurry; there’s no timetable, and the only requirement for going into the studio, she said, is having the right songs.

“I’ve got four for the follow-up, and once I get 10, I’ll go make another record — I just don’t know how long it’ll take to get there,” she said.

No doubt, it’ll be another work of art. The subject matter won’t be that different — as with most of her work, it’s about people trying to make a connection — but it will be painted in a way that gives the listener a new perspective on whatever insight Gauthier has gleaned from her turbulent life.

“I’m a survivor, and I’ve managed to make it through a lot of really challenging things,” she said. “God gave me the gift of words, so I’m able to give voice to those things and hopefully make something beautiful that one wouldn’t think of as beautiful. I think I’m an artist, and maybe I’m good at what you would call junkyard art.”

One Response to “LOUISIANA FIRE: Mary Gauthier’s story is marked by her survival”

  1. amen.

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