In conversation and in public, Mary Gauthier comes off as a practical, no-nonsense woman. Stoic, even. Which wouldn’t seem unusual, except for the fact that her songs carry so much emotional punch, they can leave you staggering. She has a way of burrowing into that hole so many of us carry inside our souls, and emerging with universal truths that show we aren’t so alone after all.
Gauthier knows where our exposed nerve endings lie because she’s probed her own so deeply, finally learning to unlock the fear and loneliness that controlled her escape-seeking trajectory for so long before songwriting — and the sobriety that drew it forth at age 35 — gave her a steadier flight path.
But even though her six albums have received countless accolades (2005’s Mercy Now earned her the Americana Music Association’s New/Emerging Artist of the Year title, and 2011’s The Foundling was named the No. 3 Record of the Year by the L.A. Times), Gauthier felt she needed to rack up her pilot hours, so to speak, before she could hit another major milestone: recording a live album. When she was ready, she captured Live at Blue Rock at a concert at the Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio in Wimberley, Texas, outside of Austin.
“People have been asking for a live CD for a long time and I just knew that I wasn’t ready yet,” admits Gauthier. “It took 10 years of trench work. Of bein’ out there, banging my head against all the things an artist has to bang against. Indifference. Poor attendance. Situations that are over your head. Every night, curve ball, curve ball, curve ball. But stagecraft cannot be taught. You have to be onstage to learn it. So after 10 years of doin’ it, I got good at it.”
Louisiana native-turned-Nashville resident Gauthier (it’s French; pronounced Go-SHAY), whose songs have earned praise from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and been recorded by Jimmy Buffett, Blake Shelton and many others, is not bragging, just explaining, in that practical way of hers. It’s the same way she discusses experiences that led to some of the extraordinary songs she performs on the album. Renowned songs, such as “I Drink,” “Drag Queens in Limousines” and “Karla Faye” — which addresses the famous fate of that convicted killer, but starts out with lines that undoubtedly reference their author as well: A little girl lost, her world full of pain. He said it feels good, she gave him her vein.
Then there’s “Blood on Blood,” from her last release, 2010’s The Foundling, which plumbs the particular hell of children given up to closed adoption. With a cinematographer’s eye and a lyrical economy that suggests far more than her 15 years of songwriting experience, she chronicles an always-present sense of rejection and rootlessness, the nagging “whys” and “what ifs,” the endless search of every face for a possible resemblance. I don’t know who I am I don’t know who I’m not/I don’t know my name I can’t find my place, she sings, her voice rising from a whisper to a wail. She’s not just offering a vein here, she’s cutting several wide open. Like all of her songs, “Blood on Blood” takes on even more power when performed live.
“As a songwriter, I’m always trying to go to the deepest possible place inside of me. Past the navel-gazing, past the self-conscious, to get to that ‘we,'” Gauthier explains. “‘Cause deep inside of all of us is the universal. And that is an artist’s job, to transcend the self. … I’m in there, but then hopefully, it goes past that and it hits something far, far bigger and more important than me. That’s what I’m aimin’ for every time I write.”
She’s proud that The Foundling opened the floodgates for thousands of fellow orphans who had never heard anyone articulate their pain with so much insight. Gauthier reports therapists are now using the album to better understand the adoptee experience. It’s also resulted in several reunions between children and their birth parents — though Gauthier’s birth mother declined that option after Gauthier made contact five years ago. And she understands that decision, even if she’ll never have the full closure she sought.
Sometimes, life just goes that way — particularly for the outsiders with whom Gauthier has always identified most. They populate Live at Blue Rock, which also contains covers of three songs by fellow poet/philosopher (and recent “Tin Can Caravan” tour leader) Fred Eaglesmith, another master at illuminating the sympathetic sides of characters society is not used to regarding kindly, if at all.
“I find the stories I want to tell are the stories of characters who may or may not make it,” says Gauthier. Though she’s no longer dangling on that precipice, she adds, “I believe in redemption. I needed redemption; I continue to need redemption.”
Luckily, she sometimes finds it onstage, in front of an audience. And just as audiences change from night to night, so do her accompanists.
When Live at Blue Rock was recorded, she had fiddle and percussion adornment. But she’s experimenting with different configurations all the time, which means the songs also take on new identities nightly.
“They’re living things,” Gauthier says of her work. “You record ’em one way, but that’s just the way you played it that day. Some words change, the tempo changes. It has to go with the flow of the room and the flow of the night.”
Gauthier, a teen runaway who attended college in Louisiana and operated a Cajun restaurant in Boston before getting sober, long ago learned how to go with the flow. And to be patient. Because it takes time to get good enough to wing it.
—By Lynne Margolis