Mary Gauthier cooks up a musical storm
Mary Gauthier performs at Club Helsinki on Saturday, April 4
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 3, 2003) – There was a point a few years ago where Mary Gauthier had to make a choice.
The Louisiana native had been running Dixie Kitchen, an award-winning Southern restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay, for nearly a decade. But for the last five years, she had been putting her toes into the water of that city’s thriving folk scene at open-mikes and coffeehouses.
She had made a self-produced recording, named after the restaurant that garnered her a Boston Music Awards nomination for Best New Contemporary Folk Act. And she had another dozen songs ready to record. She was starting to get offers for small gigs and encouragement from people in the music business.
So Gauthier took the big leap. Her partners in the restaurant bought her out, and she used the money to make her second album, “Drag Queens in Limousines.” That recording won her a four-star review in Rolling Stone magazine, a Boston Music Award nomination for Acoustic Record of the Year, and a GLAMA (Gay and Lesbian American Music Award) as Best Country Artist.
The next thing she knew, Gauthier was invited to 12 major summer folk festivals. The first call was from Newport, the granddaddy of them all. And she had hardly even begun her career as a professional performer. “I don’t know how it happened -- it’s just bizarre,” said Gauthier in a phone interview earlier this week from Nashville, which she now calls home. “It’s amazing, like something out of a Disney movie.”
An agent and manager soon followed, as did more touring gigs and a recording deal with Northampton-based Signature Sounds. And her third album, last year’s “Filth and Fire,” was named the number-one independent album of the year by the New York Times.
“This is only my fourth year as a professional musician,” said Gauthier, who performs on Saturday night at Club Helsinki at 8. “The trajectory is astounding. I can’t explain it. I feel very lucky. People work thirty years to get here and they’re far better musicians and way better looking than me.”
Not that Gauthier’s road to success was always smoothly paved. In fact, it started out rather bumpy. Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) dropped out of high school and stole the family car at age 15, leaving behind Thibodeaux, La., in search of a place where she hoped she might better fit in. She wound up celebrating her 16th birthday in a Baton Rouge detox center, and her 18th birthday in a Kansas City jail cell. Her parents bailed her out, only to have their daughter steal the car again.
Eventually, she came around to seeing life on the opposite side of the bars, steel and otherwise. She studied philosophy at Louisiana State University for five years. She studied at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, and finally quit drinking when she opened Dixie Kitchen.
Ten years in the service industry taught her some valuable lessons that she brings with her to the stage.
“It’s not really looked at as a service, but I think in some sense I’m writing in a service fashion,” said Gauthier. “If you touch peoples’ hearts with a song, in a real way you provide something to them that’s meaningful. You give people a reprieve from their own life for a while. Just the enjoyment of the melody and the vocals gets them away from their everyday difficulties -- that provides a service, too.
“Entertainment is valuable, especially at times like this. We all need a break. And for me, I’ve always gone to songwriters to try to find that break.”
Gauthier draws upon her “lost years” for the subject matter of her country-style songs about drifters, addicts and misfits, songs that have often been compared to those of Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle.
“There are writers who could do it without having lived through it, but I’m not one of them,” said Gauthier. “There are great writers who can just go into a character like an actor. David Olney comes to mind -- he goes into a character and becomes that character and writes from his perspective and is so convincing.
“I’m not like that. I pull from what I know. I can’t make things up and convince myself they’re real. There’s poetic license in what I do, but there are certain things I couldn’t write about because I don’t really understand them.”
Gauthier says she is also influenced by Southern writers, especially Flannery O’Connor, and her studies in philosophy. But she identifies herself most strongly with a lineage tracing back to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie.
“Those are the big anchors for me, Hank and Woody,” said Gauthier. “They were definitive. Nobody’s done better than them.”
Except for one. “Bob Dylan is and always will be the Shakespeare of our time,” said Gauthier. “He’s so much more than a descendant of Woody. He’s all encompassing, beyond comprehension. He has the greatest connection with the muse of any songwriter of any time.
“I’m just glad there’s not a lot of Bobs running around. He’s too good for words. He’s scary good. I’m glad there’s only one of him. It’s like living during the time of Shakespeare. It’s incredible.”
Gauthier is getting used to people speaking of her work in superlatives, too. “The chops of a populist poet,” wrote one critic. “Destined for greatness,” wrote another. “A major new artist,” wrote a third.
Still, Gauthier shrugs it off.
“People come up to me and say, ‘I can’t believe how real your songs are,’ as if being real is something we lost a long time ago,” she said. “The only thing I can figure is there’s an appreciation of real songs, a shortage of real songs.
“I don’t write to impress people. I’m just pulling it out of my experience. I don’t use a lot of words or show how smart I am or flash my education. The characters are not creations. They’re real people I’ve tried to capture.
“I’m just lucky.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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