Mary Gauthier (Photo by Chad Cochran)
Introducing “I Drink” during her recent set at Jammin’ Java, Mary Gauthier shared that she’s now been sober for 32 years.
Five years into sobriety, she started writing songs. At the time, she was a chef with a southern restaurant in Boston, southern the cuisine of her native Louisiana. As unpredictable and boom-and-bust as the restaurant business can be, the music business can be an even more difficult way to make a life.
Mary discovered she has an undeniable talent for songwriting, though, and her work has been covered by many other artists. “I Drink,” in particular, she noted on June 8, has been covered the guitarist Bill Chambers, the father Australian country chanteuse Kasey Chambers, which she described as “beautiful,” and by Blake Shelton, whose version she described as “shitty.” But she acknowledged the latter had brought her the most money.
It was also covered by longtime country stalwart Bobby Bare, Sr., who made a music video, intending to make the song his version of “Hurt,” the Trent Reznor cover that capped off Johnny Cash’s career. Mary stated that it didn’t quite come off that way, though not for lack of intent and dark execution; she was even hired to play a bartender in the video, which she said was a strange experience, given her sobriety.
Watch Mary Gauthier perform “I Drink” live for Bluegrass Underground on YouTube:
Many of Mary’s songs deal with outsiders and their struggles. At Jammin’ Java, she opened with “Drag Queens and Limousines,” which begins with the killer line, “I hated high school, I prayed it would end.” I’m as straight as they come, but that line gets me; my high school experience involved the DA encouraging me to press charges.
“Last of the Hobo Kings,” based on a story Mary read about a character named “Steam Train” Morrie, is a detailed character sketch of a persona from a world passing us by. Performed live, Mary did a spoken-word interlude about the strange charisma this figure exerted over women, such that they would wake up the next morning, asking “what the fuck” had happened. (Not to brag, and I’m not a hobo, but I’m coming to a similar place, where despite being a complete, autistic weirdo, I find myself exerting some sort of romantic gravity. Go figure.)
Over the pandemic, Mary found herself forced off the road, away from touring, and she filled that time by writing an excellent book, Saved By A Song. It’s a combination of memoir and reflection on the art of songwriting, a look at how personal history affects and informs one’s artistic process. It’s extremely well written, and I enjoyed, as have many others; the site BookMarks, an aggregator for book reviews (think of it as Metacritic, but for books), gives it it’s highest ranking, Rave, and it’s well deserved. Mary shared a few readings during her set. One recounted a Nashville guitar pull with Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, and others, at which Nanci Griffith gifted Mary her guitar. After reading the passage, Jaimee Harris, who accompanied her throughout the show, and who is, like Nanci, a Texas native, performed her “Ford Econoline.” Later, Mary shared a story about an old man who was returning to London after 70 years, confronting his childhood sexual abuse.
Last Friday, Mary released her latest album, Dark Enough To See The Stars. The title track is inspired by a phrase from a speech by Martin Luther King, It is meant to convey that, even in moments of hardship, there is still hope. While her previous albums and songs have typically skewed toward darker subjects, this one marks a turn in subject matter, with much of it dedicated to love songs, like “Thank God For You.”
Watch Mary Gauthier perform “Thank God for You” for Live from Norfolk Street with Jaimee Harris on YouTube:
“Amsterdam” was inspired by three days she was fortunate enough to spend in her favorite city with her partner as it was emerging from the pandemic. She was supposed to fly to Denmark, but there was an issue with the flights, and they ended up routed there instead, which was not, as she emphasized, a disappointment. They were able to stay at her favorite hotel at a deep discount, and they were able to get into restaurants without having to wait and fight crowds.
Even when she turns toward the light, there’s still some darkness that lingers around the edges of what Mary does. She lost a lot of people in the last few years — Nanci Griffith, who I mentioned above, was one of them, as was the great John Prine. After John passed, she cowrote “Till I See You Again” with Ben Glover, a songwriter from Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The set ended with “Mercy Now,” technically, but Mary didn’t leave the stage and went directly into her encore. She described what she called the best Best Western in Sisters, Oregon, and proceeded to sing a song which I hadn’t heard about that establishment.
Jaimee Harris, who sang backup and played rhythm guitar throughout Mary’s set, opened the show. I was delighted to hear that she’s signed her first record deal; several years ago, I reviewed her first LP, the independently recorded and released Red Rescue, which has some really strong songs, which she played. “Snow White Knuckles” is as good a song about about addiction and recovery as I’ve heard, truly gut-wrenching, moving stuff.
“Red Rescue” isn’t autobiographical; it was written about a coworker who tried a young woman from a bad family situation: when he met this 17-year-old girl’s family, everything in the house was completely red, and the meal he was served came with spoiled milk. Unfortunately, his plan was foiled when she turned out to be every bit as crazy as the rest of her family. Curiously, Jaimee mentioned that the family described in the song apparently has a copy of the CD, though they have never contacted her, which is just more weirdness.
I can’t wait to see what Jaimee does now that she has a record contract; a lot of us have our eye on her for a while, and we expect some great stuff from her in the future. She’s an incredibly talented young musician, and I can’t wait to see what she does. Mary Gauthier is a formidable songwriter, and a more than capable performer who can hold an audience at attention, and Jaime is right there with the whole time.