The title track of out lesbian singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier’s fourth album, “Mercy Now,” asks for compassion––for her father, her brother, her church and even her country: “We hang in the balance/ Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground/ Every single one of us could use a little mercy now.”
But who exactly should deliver the healing grace?
“Well, that’s a good question,” Gauthier acknowledged. “I don’t know if I can answer that. Some people would probably say God. Some would say from each other. But the listener has to figure that out. I can’t do it for them.”
What Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY) can deliver is a superb compilation of compelling, rousing and evocative songs on her first major label release. Its lyrical tales, sung with a pure and earthy voice, are spun from quintessential country/folk/ blues cloth - wrenching breakups, addiction, intense loving and rain-soaked days.
“There’s a darkness to what I do,” Gauthier admitted, “but the characters are full of hope. The battles and wars they’re in they want to win. They haven’t given up. There’s a will to live and a desire inside for love. I think it’s only really dark when you give up on love. I know I haven’t done that.”
During our telephone conversation, a week after she performed at the buzz-stirring Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Gauthier seemed intent on focusing on today and tomorrow. But there’s simply no getting around the Thibodaux, Louisiana, native’s yesterday.
Adopted by a middle-class family as an infant, Gauthier was “ready to go” at 15, so she took her parents’ car and made a hasty getaway. What was she running from, exactly?
“You can’t replay the scene,” she replied. “I was trying to save myself, so I had to go. I don’t know if it was a good thing or bad thing. If I had to live through it again, I’d do it again. Not that I’d recommend to any kid to do that, but people get into bad situations and what they have to get out of them.”
While she’s not exactly forthcoming with details regarding why home life was so intolerable, Gauthier conceded her homosexuality––self-apparent since childhood––raised hackles.
“Everything was a point of contention with my parents,” she recalled. “I’ve never been in. I’ve never had to come out. There’s never been anything else. I couldn’t hide it. If you met me you’d know – she can’t hide it.”
At 18, Gauthier landed in prison for petty theft, and over the next decade, she struggled with alcohol and drug addiction which, among other disruptions they caused, cut short a stint as a philosophy major at Louisiana State University. She ended up working at a small café, attended the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and, with business partners, opened Dixie Kitchen, a Cajun restaurant.
“We did really great food—economical for students but way better than anything for ten bucks anywhere else,” she said. “Now it’s good to be around me when I’m on a cooking spree. I love to cook. Cooking brings me peace. Excellent gumbo.”
Unfulfilled by her new life and itching for a creative outlet, Gauthier started writing songs. She kicked drugs entirely and her first bona fide complete “song” was written at age 35. Her first album, 1997’s “Dixie Kitchen,” garnered a Boston Music Award nomination for Best New Contemporary Folk Artist. Determined to focus entirely on music and attending songwriting workshops in Nashville, she sold off her share in the restaurant.
The title of her second album, 1999’s “Drag Queens in Limousines,” was inspired by a friend’s observation of a New York restaurant parking lot overrun with chauffeurs awaiting their next gig and queens exiting a neighboring drag bar. The album received positive notices in magazines like Rolling Stone, MOJO, Q and the Gavin Report, not to mention an Independent Music Award and GLAMA Country Artist of the Year award.
“The gay country artist of the year!” Gauthier repeated with a laugh. “That’s funny. There’s humor embedded in that award. I mean, who else is there? At least I picked a genre where there’s not a lot of people to climb over.”
Now signed with Universal Music imprint Lost Highway – home of Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Lyle Lovett, The Jayhawks and Lucinda Williams - Gauthier admitted that she didn’t have expectations that a major label would come a-calling.
“[Record labels] don’t scout 40 year olds,” she insisted dryly. “That doesn’t happen.” Yet they did and she said there were no attempts to modify her sound or vision on behalf of Lost Highway. “They signed me for me, they wouldn’t want to change that and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Indeed, Gauthier maintained that being gay has never caused a headache in her musical career or her red state-based life.
“I’m totally at peace with the gay thing,” she said. “It’s not an issue for me. I worked through all that a long time ago when I was just a kid. My problems today are directly related to personality traits, not homosexuality. It’s not something I even think about. Even living here in Nashville. I’m a known quantity and people embrace me for me.”
Like her last album, 2002’s “Filth & Fire,” there’s a share of dark tales to be found on “Mercy Now.” The Leonard Cohen-esque “Falling Out of Love” grimly charts a deteriorating romance (“Falling out of love is a treacherous thing/ With its crucible kiss and its battered ring”). The country-twangy “I Drink” paints a picture of a self-loathing drunkard repeating his alcoholic father’s mistakes (“”Fish swim/ Birds Fly/ Daddies yell/ Mamas cry/ Old men/ Sit and think/ I drink”). And the gently acoustic “Empty Spaces” laments a long-finished relationship (“You’re holding my hand in that picture/ hanging in the hall/ Well, I took it down after you left/ Now there’s an empty space on the wall”).
Gauthier said that her songs always spring from personal experience. That being the case, does her girlfriend of two years ever get worried there’s trouble brewing when she hears a new achy break-up song?
“No, no,” Gauthier insisted. “I think if you were real close to me you’d understand my songs come from me but they’re also creations. I’m not just singing my life. If it were always about me, it would be dreadful and boring. I’m not interesting enough to write four records about. I have to get out of me and into bigger, more interesting things.”
Things are looking up in every aspect of Gauthier’s life. Sober 15 years and counting, she long ago reconciled with her parents and the clan is taking a cross-Canada train trip. She’s going to accompany Willie Nelson on a European tour. And she recently completed a video for the “Mercy Now” title track.
“I’m pretty mellow,” Gauthier reflected. “I’m not a fighter anymore. I’m a love maker. I’m not real angry, I don’t feel like I’ve been a victim of anything. I feel blessed. I feel grateful. I feel lucky. I’ve got this second career in the middle of my life, I’m on a great record label, I’m on the verge of going on the road with Willie, I have every reason to wake up smiling––and I do!”
Visit marygauthier.com and losthighwa