Mary Gauthier is having none of it. Born and raised in Louisiana, the 45-year-old songwriter now makes her home in Nashville, ground zero for assembly-line country tunes and Americana pretty boys and girls. These people often wager that a sharp band, a decent groove and a marquee publicist are all it takes to get a spread in Performing Songwriter and an endorsement deal with Takamine guitars. More often than not, they're right.
"People believe that crap," says Gauthier. "Harlan Howard says that his greatest asset was that he couldn't play guitar, because that forced him to get the words right. I think that can also be true for good singers. Not everybody is a songwriter, but not everybody realizes that."
Gauthier realized it late in life, after years of booze and dope, after years of running successful but (in her mind) irrelevant restaurants, after years running away from who she didn't even know she was. Gauthier was raised an orphan in Baton Rouge, and when her family moved to the tiny town of Thibodaux, Louisiana, the teenager split for good.
"I always say Thibodaux is French for purgatory," she laughs. "There was nothing about it that suited me. It was a small Cajun town. I was in eleventh grade, and everybody grew up together. Not many people just come into that town. And being an outsider by nature, too, that was a one-two punch, and I couldn't stay there."
Ever obsessed with ideas and words, Gauthier eventually studied philosophy at Louisiana State University. But she soon wound up in Boston, where she enrolled in culinary school and opened the city's first Cajun restaurant, the Dixie Kitchen — a place where the food was cheap and the expectations were low. "My restaurant had soul," she says. "I did cook with passion and love, but I didn't elevate the art form. What I hope to do as a songwriter is to go some place that somebody hasn't been before."
The Dixie Kitchen was across the street from Symphony Hall and next door to the Berklee College of Music. Gauthier's employees and patrons were musicians and music lovers, and though she owned a guitar, she could barely play it and never considered writing songs. After a drunk-driving arrest in 1990, she finally got clean, and a few years later she began writing. She doesn't know how or why.
"The whole thing is bizarre," Gauthier says. "I can't really understand how it came to pass. A couple of years after getting sober, the restaurant started settling down, and the songs started coming. I started going to open mics, writing songs to play there, and it became an obsession. Six, seven years after doing that, I sold the restaurant and moved to Nashville."
Gauthier named her first album after that restaurant, but with 1999's Drag Queens in Limousines she established a songwriting voice that cut to the quick of dark, desperate character studies, using words like scalpels to cut deeper and deeper, until only the truth was left. The music was spare and simple, but the stories of death row inmates and eternal outsiders were inexhaustible.
"My guitar playing is pretty basic, but I think that's a good thing," she says. "I've been able to turn my weaknesses into strengths. I think of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, John Prine. None of those guys are known for their guitar playing. My limited musical ability puts a lot of pressure on my lyrical ability. I'm a word person by nature.
"And I'm pretty lucky that I have limited singing ability and limited musical talent," she continues, laughing. "Now I'm trapped. If I want to be in the music business, I have to get the words right. I'm not going to study guitar. I'm not interested in that. I can get by with the chords I know, if I can just get those words to that transcendental place where I get the chills when they go by."
On her new album, Between Daylight and Dark (her second for major label Lost Highway), Gauthier enlisted producer Joe Henry to direct the sound and sessions. While Henry has recently been reviving the careers of soul legends Bettye LaVette and Solomon Burke, Gauthier says that he never tried to remake her in his image.
"I knew the LaVette record, the Solomon Burke record. But that didn't have anything to do with me. You can't even tell I'm from Louisiana hardly. Joe said he wanted to make an eloquent record, and I think he did that. He had a battle plan, and we recorded it in a week. That was such a relief. I came in, played the songs for the band, and they charted out their charts. Everybody got into their position, I went into the booth, closed the door, and we played them together, and then again. After three, four, five times of that, we had it. It was a live performance, a moment in time."
The songs come from any place that speaks to Gauthier: newspaper obituaries, a hotel window in Amsterdam, images of fireflies circling in the dark and all those wayward intimations of spirit that can't be summarized, though they can sometimes be sung.
"I could use a lot more faith than what I have," Gauthier says with some hesitation. "I got some. I'd like to have more. There's something in the spirit. I look at life itself with awe, the fuel behind our consciousness. I don't know how to talk about it. Every time I try to talk about it, it leads me to words that have already been ruined, and I sound like something I'm not. So many of our words are destroyed, we can't have them anymore. I'm left kind of speechless."
On the album's last song, "Thanksgiving," Gauthier imagines a holiday in a penitentiary. The story has no punch line. Every soul moves with the slowness of marked time, every visitor knows that "love ain't easy and love ain't free." It's a dark portrait of life, but every detail rings true.
"I get accused of being too dark, too heavy, too grim," she admits. "Where's the optimism? The folks I'm singing about have to look really hard to just be. I hope that I wouldn't romanticize those situations. I wrote 'Drag Queens in Limousines' a long time ago, and it made it sound fun to be a homeless kid. So maybe I've been guilty as charged. But I try to present the struggle as the struggle, not as a whole lot of fun."