When CL gets hold of Mary Gauthier, the 57-year-old songwriter is preparing for her return to the stage at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. In the past, Gauthier (pronounced “go-shay”) has made light of how the storied Music City program lets a big queer up there, and she touched on the subject to open our conversation.
“You know, somehow things have changed. I don’t know what the hell’s happening here,” Gauthier joked before reverting back the more introspective tone fans have come to know over the last 20 years. She said that being at the Opry never gets old; in fact, waiting offstage before stepping into The Circle makes Gauthier think of all the songwriters who could’ve, and should’ve, been able to be in that spotlight — and how so many were denied that chance.
“You know, Woody Guthrie never played the Opry because of McCarthyism,” she said. “It’s just humbling. It makes me reflect on just how lucky I’ve been.”
Interpreting life in the context of someone else’s has been a specialty of Gauthier’s from the get-go, and to call her songbook empathetic would be an understatement. Tunes from her 1999 breakout sophomore LP, Drag Queens in Limousines, embraced characters on the fringe of society and told their stories a way that was brutally honest and heartwarming at the same time.
The record put Gauthier in the conversation with Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Lucinda Williams when it came to country songwriters with a penchant for writing simple, thought- and emotion-provoking songs. She dug even deeper on a lonesome fourth album (Mercy Now’s title track was no. 30 on a Rolling Stone list of the “Saddest Country Songs of All Time”), and elevated once again on her 2014 outing, Trouble & Love, where that naked truth got coupled with stories about agony, acceptance and anger. Knowing Gauthier’s backstory — she didn’t start writing songs until the age of 35, after almost dying as a result of her struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction — makes the catalog cut even deeper.
In 2013, Gauthier got involved with SongwritingWith:Soldiers (SWS), a nonprofit founded by Darden Smith the year before. SWS pairs veterans and active-duty service members with professional songwriters to craft songs about their military experiences. Gauthier has described herself as a witness or midwife to the songs, many of which ended up on a 2018 album, Rifles and Rosary Beads. A large portion of Gauthier’s live set (she’ll be at The Attic in Ybor City on Saturday night and in-store at St. Petersburg’s Bananas Records the same afternoon) is built on songs written during the SWS retreats.
For critics, the artistry of the tunes is almost overwhelming; for the soldiers, getting the songs out is about desperation.
“They want to release their pain. They want to get through it. They’re trying desperately to find a way out,” Gauthier said about the process. There’s no writer’s block whatsoever, and it’s all because of the soldiers’ willingness to talk about their wounds, both mental and physical. “Music shows up every time to help them with that. I don’t do much. I just listen.”
There can sometimes be an element of worry surrounding releasing such personal material, but many of the veterans are quick to exorcise even more of their suffering when they see how the songs help other soldiers in the retreats.
“When they realize their story and pain can be of service they give it freely — it’s humbling,” Gauthier said. She added that being vulnerable can often lead to exploitation and that humans have many different ways of hurting each other. Her art tries to build bridges instead; SWS even gets soldiers co-writing credits and payouts when songs get picked up by radio or other songwriters.
“The job of the artist is to find and sit with beauty. And that’s almost always in some way related to love,” she said. Gauthier does allow herself space to be away from the trauma being exposed in the SWS experience, but she doesn’t ever find herself too far removed from it. She is, admittedly, incapable of writing a song out of thin air; something has to connect for a song to be born, and distress often acts as the catalyst.
“Historically it’s been trauma because I’ve been working on trying to save my own damned life,” she said. Gauthier stops before becoming too self-deprecating, and she will not accept that she has done anything good for the soldiers.
“I think the way that the algebra of giving works is that every time you give you get something back — and no matter how elevated the giving becomes — you get that much more back,” she said.
“I don’t want to think about that so much because it starts to sound self-congratulatory and that’s just disingenuous, and it’s also kind of ugly.”
Maybe so, but what Gauthier and the SWS soldiers have created on Rifles and Rosary Beads is beautiful in a devastatingly blunt way. And it only happened because Gauthier was in the room, and listening, when someone was ready to pour their soul out. She may sing the words on stage, but Gauthier’s gift is her ability to truly hear pain and then work it out in a song.
“I didn’t do anything to make it happen. I just feel for people who are struggling. I’m able to bear witness in a way that hopefully is non-judgmental and useful,” Gauthier explained in her typically modest way before adding that she could stand to be better at listening.
“I don’t do it perfectly and I can always get better at it. I promise you. I’m still learning, but I do very much want to be good at that.”
Well, Mary, you’re well on your way.
Mary Gauthier w/Jaimee Harris. Sat. April 13, 7 p.m. $30-$45. The Attic at Rock Brothers Brewing. 1510 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City. rockbrothersbrewing.com. (Gauthier, also plays a free Record Store Day set at Banana’s Records in St. Petersburg on April 13 at 2 p.m. — details available via bananasrecords.com).
Read our full Q&A with Gauthier here.