Master Songwriter Mary Gauthier at Heartwood Soundstage
“Writing helps me sort out confusion, untangle powerful emotions, and ward off desperation. It helps me navigate the powerful emotional weather systems of life.” – Mary Gauthier, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting
Mary Gauthier’s early life was one of pain and struggles. Orphaned as a child in New Orleans, adopted by a family with their own addictions, and struggling with her own sexuality, she started drinking and using drugs heavily as a youth and spent several years in a blur of rehab facilities, halfway houses, and the occasional stay in jail. She crafted a life as a successful restaurateur and chef in New England, but addiction and emotional struggles challenged her until she was arrested for a DUI, and she finally became sober at age 27.
In the process of her recovery she found that writing songs was surprisingly therapeutic. After recording an album of her songs, she realized that songwriting was her future. She moved to Nashville in 2001, and her breakthrough 2005 album Mercy Now, resulted in a “New Artist of the Year” award at age 43. The title song received a renewed interest when it was used in the last scene of the first season’s final episode of Yellowstone, and it remains her best-known song. Putting her personal experience with the reparative power of songwriting, in 2018 she recorded the award-winning Rifles and Rosary Beads after working with U.S. veterans and their families in songwriting workshops. The album was nominated for a Grammy award and led to her writing her book Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting. Her songs have been covered by a diverse group of artists from Jimmy Buffett and Boy George to Bobby Bare and Blake Shelton.
With her musical and life partner Jaimee Harris, a wonderful singer/songwriter on her own, Gauthier entranced a capacity crowd at Gainesville’s Heartwood Soundstage. Harris did a few of her own songs as a brief opener, including the title song from her new album Boomerang Town, a cover of Tom Petty’s “Crawling Back to You,” and a hilarious take on an imagined night in an actual Florida establishment, “Tattoo Zoo.”
Gauthier’s set was a treatise in storytelling. Opening with the autobiographical title cut from her 1999 album Drag Queens and Limousines, she included several songs from Mercy Now, “Your Sister Cried” and “Falling Out of Love,” and then played the title cut from Trouble and Love.
A head full of dreams, a chest full of hurt
Friends say walk on; it’s more trouble than it’s worth
But my will is gone and my head hangs low
It ain’t the leaving, it’s the way you go
She did several readings from her book, addressing the ability of songs to change minds and offer redemption, and the definition of “troubadour”, which is a perfect descriptor for her work.
Her most recent release, Dark Enough to See the Stars, is a collection of songs that mourn loss and celebrate love. Largely written during the pandemic, in her words “Love and grief are the dominant themes, joy and sorrow, the dominant emotions.” She lost three of her friends and heroes (John Prine, Nanci Griffith, and David Olney) in the past few years, mourned the state of the nation, and found strength in a relationship and taking comfort in past happier times. The last is reflected in “Amsterdam”:
Rocking horse carousels, calliopes, cathedral bells
Hyacinths and daffodils, tulips in the windowsills
It’s been a heartbreak year, I’m so glad to be back here
Walking these old streets with you, wide awake, a dream come true
All right, feeling all right in Amsterdam tonight
All right, feeling all right in Amsterdam, Amsterdam tonight
Returning to her past catalog with “I Drink,” a song whose devastating message about growing up with an alcoholic family and the expected outcome belies the sprightly John Prine-influenced fingerpicking presentation. It’s among her most-covered songs by country artists.
Chicken TV dinner
6 minutes on defrost, 3 on high
A beer to wash it down with
Then another, a little whiskey on the side
It’s not so bad alone here
It don’t bother me that every night’s the same
I don’t need another lover
Hanging ’round, trying to make me change
By and by
Sit and think
Two songs from Rifles and Rosary Beads came next: “War after the War,” addressing the role of wives dealing with trauma-scarred husbands, and “Bullet Holes in the Sky.” Her song “Last of the Hobo Kings” grew out of her proclivity to read New York Times obituaries, which she followed up with research into the life of Steam Train Maury, the true hobo king.
The title cut from her recent album Dark Enough to see the Stars is a tribute to her lost friends and heroes, and a cry for hope.
Curse the clock time is a thief, every life it measures brief
Every child is born to die, but the soul is born to fly
Under heaven’s canopy, tiny diamonds you and me
Lightning bugs inside a jar, dark enough to see the stars
“Thank God for You” is the bright spot out of the darkness, a love letter filled with gratitude.
I was just another junkie jonesing on a Greyhound bus
With a twenty-year ticket to a tortured mind
Sirens, sorrow, cigarette butts
My Jesus in pieces, broken as the highway lines
Thank God for you, I thank God for you
Wake up in the morning, I thank God for you
I thank God for you, I thank God for you
Wake up in the morning, I thank God for you
You gave me something no one can take away
You saw through me and loved me anyway
She closed the night with her poignant prayer for the disaffected, and her best-known song, “Mercy Now.” It’s pretty much impossible to listen to it without being drawn into its solemnity and pain.
My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now
Her encore was a lighthearted look at life on the road, when a good motel can be gazed upon with delight, “Best Best Western.”
It was a fine show, filled with Gauthier’s carefully crafted songs. They provide relatable emotions, honesty, and bravery in a way few songwriters can approach, and the sold-out audience hung onto every word. Make every effort to see her when you have the chance.