Mary Gauthier and Hazard County Girls
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 6, 2003) – After playing one of a series of relentlessly bleak country ballads during her sold-out, 90-minute set at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier joked to the audience, “I hope you didn’t come to here to get cheered up.” Earlier on, Gauthier had remarked about another of her compositions, “I really like that song; I just wish I didn’t have to live it.”

Gauthier writes songs in the classic, “tears in my beer” country tradition: songs of desperation, longing and heartbreak. And she makes no bones about the fact that many of the details are autobiographical, including the ones about homelessness, drug addiction, crime and desperado behavior.

Somehow Gauthier survived the wildness and irresponsibility of her youth, and half a dozen years ago she began turning her experiences of the darkness on the edge of town into what sounds like country songs but boasts the poetry and literariness of contemporary folk songs.

Backed by Steve Sadler on dobro, mandolin and occasional vocal harmonies, Gauthier portrayed various “cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels” with the acuity of short story writers like Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason. She tempered the “curse of the gypsy on [her] soul” with an almost impish personality, a gift for narrative wit both in the songs and in her between-song patter and a healthy dose of ironic remove.

Thus, she began one minor-key country song, blew a few harmonica notes, read at least my mind if not everyone else’s in the room, stopped in mid-phrase, and said, “I know this sounds like a Neil Young song; at least I’m copying someone good.”

Gauthier also brought a highly evolved sense of empathy to her down-and-out characters that, far from exploiting them, found dignity where others might only have seen pathos.

Along with Sadler’s superb, delicate accompaniment, Gauthier’s fetching stage presence and modesty went a long way toward overcoming the considerable weaknesses that threatened fully to undermine her performance: the sameness of her material, the just-above-competent level of her guitar playing, and the limits of her vocal art, including the harshness of her tone, her lack of dynamic control, and wavery pitch. She sang best when she stuck to a conversational approach, but any time Gauthier sang out, she was undermined by her lack of vocal color and richness and her inability to control her pitch.

The Hazard County Girls, an all-female, New Orleans-based trio, played a late-night set following Gauthier. Theirs was also a mood of gloom, but rendered in an entirely different style – straight out of CBGBs circa 1981. The guitar-bass-drums trio played classic punk, hardcore and post-punk, seemingly untouched by subsequent tangential movements like Seattle grunge and Californian pop-punk save for a few delicious surfcore tunes.

The surface harshness and atonality of the music was belied by the beauty of its almost perfectly mathematical proportions. Guitarist Christy K.’s vocals cut through the instrumental din with unusual clarity and sharpness, and were arranged in precise counterpoint to Jennifer K.’s monstrous, melodic bass lines. Buried behind her kit, drummer Sharon H. defied what seemed physically possible in pounding out the group’s beats.

The Girls, who must have been infants when this style of music was first heard, were at once a nostalgic throwback to the birth of punk-rock and a welcome harbinger of hope that the torch may yet be passed to a new generation. No other band that I’ve seen in over a decade seems more worthy and likely to lead the charge. And no other band seems as glamorously fun.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 7, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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