Mary Gauthier: I’m in the Arts Business
Every songwriter in Nashville has a story. Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-shay) has a hell of one. A runaway from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Gauthier moved in with drag queens at age 17. She fought addiction to heroine, booze, and other intoxicants. After dropping out of college and moving to Boston, she opened a successful restaurant, Dixie Kitchen. At age 27, she got sober. Now in her mid-fifties, she’s become a respected artist in Nashville known for her honesty, truth, and grit in the art of crafting a song.
Tonight, she’ll take the stage at City Winery with two of her friends, Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson for a show they call “3 Women and the Truth.” We talked a little last week about the show, her past, and where she’s headed next.
On getting sober, Gauthier says “I didn’t start writing until I got sober. I got a late start in terms of music business. I didn’t really start writing until my mid-thirties and I didn’t come to Nashville till I was 40. I got my record deal late. Real late. I got sober when I was 27, it just took a long time for me to get my shit together after I got sober. I wrote the song “I Drink” when I was 5 years clean. It took time. I had to get perspective. Songwriting and being a creative person has been a real journey for me. It came as a result of getting sober.
Her debut album Drag Queens in Limousines came out in 2000. We revisited that time in her life, and I tried to jog her memory a bit.
“It was in Baton Rouge when I was 17. I was such a kid. (On trying to remember stage names of her friends) You know I’d really have to think. It was so long ago… The thing is, when I was with the drag queens, I didn’t have a big relationship with their stage persona. I had a relationship with them off the stage. They nurtured me and mothered me, not in drag, but out of drag. When it was show time, that whole thing scared me. Like I said, I was just a kid and that shit got really out of hand. I wasn’t old enough to go into the bars in the first place. The relationship was forged with me as an illegal minor in situations where I didn’t belong. But drag queens have a sixth sense about a kid in trouble and they protected me, as many will tend to do. Some drag queens are heroic in their ability to reach out to a kid in trouble. I was lucky enough to run into some who did that for me.”
She’s very excited to be performing at the City Winery tonight, because it’s time with good friends.
“Gretchen Peters, Eliza Gilkyson, and I have been on the road together with a show called “3 Women & The Truth, a couple years now I guess. We swap songs and get on stage together and tell stories. It’s really a great show and we’re great friends we enjoy each other very much.”
Peters is the songwriter with songs you’ve heard before, such as Patty Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” and Martina McBride’s mega-hit “Independence Day.”
Gilkyson is a folk writer based in Austin. She was Grammy nominated in 2015 for folk album of the year with The Nocturne Diaries.
“Neither Eliza or I are in the hit making business. We’re in the art business. It’s different than trying to write something for commercial purposes. It’s not better or worse; it’s just different. In many ways, what we’re doing is out of favor. People are looking for truth in songs as much anymore. But it always comes back around. Songs are very powerful. When you’re in pain and you’re struggling, an honest song has things in it to keep you off the ledge. And doing songwriting as an art, as opposed to writing commercially, it takes a very different approach. Every now and then, I get songs recorded by famous recording artists. But that’s not the focus of my work and not my intent. I’m happy when it happens, don’t get me wrong, it helps pay the bills. But that’s never my fundamental motivation. My fundamental motivation is to get to the truth in singing."
Her song “How You Learn to Live Alone” is one of those that have been recorded by famous recording artists. In episode #201 (I Fall To Pieces) of the show Nashville, Jonathan Jackson performs the song in a scene at the (set version of) The Bluebird Café. In background research for this artist, it was the one that stuck out to me the most.
The song is hauntingly beautiful. The struggles we all go through when we go through a major breakup in the most honest, truth-telling lyrics one could summon. The depth of the lyrics like the line “Every revolution brings you closer to the sun” just brings chills and reminds you of your strength. Because even though it was hard, you made it. And if you’re listening to it while you’re in it, it gives you the courage you need to summon.
That is how I found the other songs in her vast catalogue. She’s that artist you need to turn on when you’re on the brink of losing your mind, or when you need to remember how you strong you were for not losing it. She’s one that can reach you in that dark place and make you feel better about it on the other side.
Gauthier is a Nashville veteran, playing all over town, including the Opry which she is very proud of. Being a lesbian on the Grand Ole Opry stage might have been a problem back a few years ago, but Gauthier is very proud to say that isn’t so anymore.
“When (her previous album) Trouble in Love came out, I played the Opry 5 times. There’s been a positive, welcoming response. And I look gay. I couldn’t pass, there’s no way I could pass. But even if I could pass, there’s no way that I’d ever try that… I look gay and I like looking gay. But there’s been a change. Nashville, and the Opry especially, is coming into its own. And I feel very welcome there. I think that’s very interesting to the readers, and especially the songwriters. Don’t tell yourself you can’t do it. You certainly can. It’s no longer a barrier.”
What’s coming in the future for Gauthier? She’s teaching others the craft.
“I’ve got a book coming out! It’s being published through Yale University. It’s about the art of songwriting. It’s talking to songwriters and other creative people about the art to songwriting, and fundamentally about the art of ‘song,’ as opposed to writing hits and the crap, and making a product for the market place. I’m more interested in what I do, trying to get to the truth in my songs. I guess that’s why they chose me to write this book for them. I’m very excited about the opportunity, and I think I’m close, I mean I feel real close.”
The art of her songwriting is just that; art. If you’re an aspiring songwriter, or like me and just appreciate someone who knows how to craft a song, you need to be at City Winery tonight. If you happen to miss tonight, she has a couple more sets coming up soon. You can find links for tickets tonight, as well as to upcoming shows and more information at her website www.marygauthier.com.
photo via stevedawson.ca