music (2006-39)

Southern Lit

Mary Gauthier and the art of musical articulation 

by Leslie Wylie

Some things you just can’t fake. That’s why creative writing professors are always screaming “Write what you know,” because the truth has a habit of telling on itself, slipping though the cracks between words and announcing its presence. Same thing with life.  You can run from the truth, sometimes for a very long time, but sooner or later it’ll always catch up.

Take Nashville singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, for instance. She spent a good three decades running, running with scissors, running in circles, running through walls. Born in Baton Rouge, the adopted daughter of an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother, Gauthier’s downward spiral started early. She stole her parents’ car at age 15 and ran away, was in jail for her 18th birthday, and leapt from addiction to addiction throughout her 20s. Like a runaway horse, the world around her was reduced to a blur; even when the demons faded out of sight, she kept running because running was all she’d ever known.

At 35, it stopped. Maybe because that was the only option left. Gauthier sobered up, turned around, and started writing what she saw, articulating the shadows from which she’d emerged. What came out was a dark kind of poetry, sung with a knowing wink, a well-that’s-that requiem for the life she’d just barely managed to survive. “It makes me grateful everyday that I’m not there anymore,” Gauthier says of her country-noir songcraft. “And it gives me a whole bucketful of stories.”

Gauthier’s stories, half-sung and half-spoken, speak of survivors and casualties, of physical abuse and drug abuse and hours spent dwelling in the murky, windowless corners of the soul. Empty spaces ain’t nothing new , she sings against a dusty backdrop of wandering guitars. Rainbows ain’t something that you hold on to/ They move out as the storm moves through/ Empty spaces ain’t nothing new . But threading the tragic pieces together is a meditation on the things that pull us through to the other side—love, humor, weatherworn perspective.

There’s a clean, hard edge to it, softened just so by the deep southern texture of her voice. But it’s not so much a sense of geography that holds her music together. It’s something independent of physical space.

Last summer I stumbled into a show of Gauthier’s in Dublin, not knowing who she was. She was doing a European tour with Willie Nelson, and the club was packed with locals listening intently while she told stories, heartfelt narratives that bled in and out of song. The evening reminded me of home, but for the Irish crowd, which didn’t have that point of reference, it must’ve evoked something else. Something larger, more authentic, than a point on the map.

“I would say [my music] is American, but you saw what happened in Ireland,” Gauthier says, recalling the night. “I think the sense of place is the human heart. It works all over the world, from Texas to Glasgow, even when you’re not in English-speaking countries.”

“It’s human experience,” she continues. “It’s a universal experience that transcends things that normally separate people.” 

Her pursuit of such communion is what keeps her on the road today. “I really like Nashville,” she explains, “but musicians are traveling types. We can make a home out of a hotel room somewhere if we’re there long enough.”

Perhaps Gauthier’s transient spirit is a throwback to that part of her life she spent running away. Except that now she’s running toward instead of away from something. Naturally, such searching materializes in her music as well. Like this song, written from the perspective of a woman who’s left her lover and is suggesting a way for him to explain their breakup to friends. Just say she’s a rhymer, and rhymers get restless/ Just say that she’s out there in search of a song/ I know I hurt you, but I never meant to/ Just say she’s a rhymer, just say she’s gone.

But the chase yields its own bounty. Movement can be a muse, generating new narratives as old ones run dry. Asked whether she’s ever scared that she’ll run out of stories, Gauthier replies, “I used to worry about it. I’ve got Bob Dylan’s new record, and what is he, 65? And he hasn’t run out of heartbreak and love and emotions, and all the things love can do to you. He’s an inspiration for songwriters like me to keep pushing them out.”

She pauses for a moment before answering, definitively, “There’s enough in one lifetime to write about for a lifetime, sure.”

What: Mary Gauthier