“Mary Gauthier, Mary Gauthier/ She write all night, sleep all day/ Damndest thing I ever seen/ Was that woman in a limousine.” So, sings Ray Wylie Hubbard on “Name Droppin’” from his 2003 release, GROWL. But why, oh Texas one, was that such the spectacle? And who is Mary Gauthier? If it’s time for confessions (and ain’t it always?), then the commentator submits that on many occasion he stomped around the kitchen cookin’ and singin’ “Name Droppin’” without the foggiest notion of who or what a Mary Gauthier is. Go-shay. It sounds like voodoo, but in that mystical mojo way that conjures up images of crossroads or lantern lit shacks guarded by cypress. Was she some uncanny bayou princess? An ancient power that compelled Ray Wylie with strange and terrible visions? Was she even real? Yes, Mary Gauthier is corporeal and mortal– and that often makes for tragedy.
1963 marked the year that Mary Gauthier made a full revolution around the sun. It was also the year she was adopted, plucked from a New Orleans orphanage. Her mother left newborn Mary to fend for herself, ending her participation in this tale. Mary grew taller, discovered she preferred the intimate touch of girls to boys. Age 15 saw Mary behind the wheel of stolen car. Yeah, it was her parents’, but the die was cast, and the rebellion wasn’t nearly begun. She ran away from home. Mary put one hand around a bottle and filled the other with pills shaped like anger. When her fingers fell empty, they found the cold bars of a jail cell. Mary enrolled, dropped out of LSU, drifted east. Mary Gauthier wouldn’t be the first person to find a measure of peace in the restaurant business. The heat, the comraderie of a kitchen, the relentless pace and pursuit of perfection. It’s food, and wine, and liquor, and sex, and sweat– and sometimes it’s even rewarding. Mary found focus and opened a Cajun joint in Boston. Exotic, right? She almost f**ked it up royally.
Mary Gauthier’s Dixie Kitchen opened in the Back Bay on July 12 1990… She promptly ended up in the can with a DUI. Mary had, what is commonly refered to in the South as a “come to Jesus” moment. She quit the booze, dumped the pills. Mary ran that Dixie Kitchen 12 steps at a time, and it probably saved her life. And then a funny thing happened… Mary, at the age of 35, started writing songs. Music had always swayed her– Bob Dylan and the Boss, Patty Smith’s driving angst, the Indigo Girls… She made a record, sold the restaurant, made another record. 1998’s Drag Queens In Limousines put Mary on the festival circuit. The autobiographical title track is as good as anything Fred Eaglesmith or Lucinda Williams might’ve concocted in the alt-90’s. All the pain and confusion of those early years, enemies, friends, and lovers, the ragged acceptance… Nashville beckoned to Mary in 2001, and she answered with two fists full of songs. And they’re good songs too. One, “I Drink,” has been recorded by Blake Shelton and Tim McGraw, though the commentator would steer you towards either the original from 2005’s Mercy Now or Bobby Bare’s version from last year’s Things Change.
With your indulgence, let’s jump to January 26, 2018 and the release of Rifles & Rosary Beads. Mary Gauthier spent four years with veterans and their families and the result was 11 new songs that she describes as “not therapy,” but “empathy: the making of art.” Mary became involved with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, an excellent non-profit that pairs active and veteran service men and women with working songwriters. The commentator submits that most contemporary songs about soldiers and war tend towards aggressive, over-compensating flag waving (yes, Toby Keith, it is to you I point) or extreme cautionary propaganda (Steve Earle, I find you guilty). You won’t find either on Rifles & Rosary Beads. Each track is someone’s experience– the soldier reliving loss and dealing with regret, the spouse struggling to cope and understand. So much goes into the training, the waiting, the effort… And so little into the return to “normal” life. What Mary Gauthier learned, indeed what all writers understand after a fashion, is that once you reduce an ache to words and music– you can let it go. You cut it to tape, sing it out, share it, give it, take it back…
But, what of that polarizing (at least to Ray Wylie Hubbard) vision of Mary in a limousine? Have we solved that conundrum? Of course, that Texas enthusiast did not clarify what position was occupied– was Mary driving? Riding shotgun? Lounging comfortably or nervously upright? We began this query in verse– so, it seems a fitting way to end.
“Drag queens in limousines/ Nuns in blue jeans/ Dreamers with big dreams/Poets and AWOL marines/Actors and barflys/Writers with dark eyes/Drunks that philosophize…”
Those are Mary Gauthier ‘s friends.