"If there was justice, if I got what I deserved, I should be dead. I know that on the deepest level."
That's Mary Gauthier talking about why at age 35, she walked away from a successful career as a Boston restaurateur and leapt into the uncertain world of songwriting.
"I think a lot of times, if you talk to people who have had near-death experiences, they come out of it changed, and I came out of my addiction years changed," she explains. "You know, I got sober; I did the restaurant; I succeeded at that, so in my mind, it was time to do something else."
Gauthier had lived for years addicted to drugs and alcohol. She stole her mother's car and spent her 16th birthday in detox. She spent her 18th birthday in jail for breaking into another car. When drugs became her life, she washed out of college and fell in with a bunch of similarly alienated friends in Baton Rouge, a tale she told on her first major single, "Drag Queens and Limousines." Ten long, harrowing years later, she got sober, on the eve of opening her restaurant, the Dixie Kitchen.
For as long as she can remember, Gauthier had a guitar for company. She goofed around with a punk band in 1982, and after years of playing for herself and friends, she started signing up on open-mic lists around Boston ... and waiting her turn. In 1997, she made her own CD, Dixie Kitchen, partly to help promote the restaurant, but also because she realized she needed it to get gigs. She figures she sold a couple dozen.
Today, Dixie Kitchen embarrasses her, mostly because she can hear herself trying too hard. Things come easier now. "I'm just getting better at it," she says. "You know, as you do it you get better at it." Still, when she sings, it's a buoyant contrast; her songs are mostly conversational, in the manner of Tom Waits.
It's not so much the melodies, anyway, that have won her songs so many fans. Gauthier is more driven than most to tell her truths. They're just too big, too dark and too compelling to contain. And they are riveting. Dixie Kitchen's "Goddamn HIV," for instance, is not a song you could write without having been too close to too much of it. "Karla Faye," on Drag Queens in Limousines, relates the life of the addict/whore/born-again Christian, and executed murderer, with the mercy that eluded her in life, mercy arising from Gauthier's personal experience with addiction.
Gauthier's songs are populated with characters you couldn't make up, including those that attracted national attention to "Drag Queens in Limousines." Her 1999 CD by that same name percolated through underground and community radio stations and won her slots at folk festivals throughout the U.S. and Europe.
She does write fictional characters, but even those are very close to her. "I Drink," originally released on Drag Queens and reprised on her 2005 Mercy Now, features one such character. She imagines him to be a man, his emotions as inaccessible to himself as to anyone else. "I know what I am / and I don't give a damn" is his piercing summation, at the end of a litany of verities: "Fish swim / Birds fly / Daddies yell / Mamas cry / Old men / Sit and think / I drink."
Even Gauthier's many lost-love songs can be unnerving. Mercy Now's "Falling Out of Love" describes the experience as "... a treacherous thing / With its crucible kiss and its battered ring / With its holy whispers and its labyrinth lies." "Long Way to Fall," from her 2002 Filth and Fire, features the less graphic, but perhaps more disturbingly resonant line, "You rolled away and moved against the wall / I fell into the space between us."
The fabric of Gauthier's life has bright spots, though, and much hope in the weave. Mercy Now's "Wheel Inside the Wheel" captures an afterlife, Mardi Gras spirit that Hurricane Katrina endowed with peculiar poignancy. The song envisions a "parade of souls" marching across the sky to the tune "When the Saints Come Marching In."
The finest song on Mercy Now is its title track, which has earned considerable airplay on community radio stations. Inspired by her dad's disappearance into Alzheimer's disease, the song has a simplicity and universality that recalls the work of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Her relations with her father always had been unusually difficult, but his decline has opened her heart to him. "Mostly now, it's coming to terms with my dad," she says, "coming to an adult relationship with my dad. I write about what I live, and that's just where I'm at now."
"Mercy Now" builds from a wish for mercy for her father through four verses to a plea for mercy for all of humanity: "We hang in the balance / Dangle 'tween hell and hallowed ground / Every single one of us could use a little mercy now."
Gauthier lives in Nashville, Tenn., these days and works for Harlan Howard Publishing. Life is still hard, but now that's in a good way, a healthy way. "It's supposed to be hard," she says. "Being an artist is not an easy thing, any kind of artist. It's hard to make ends meet; it's hard to live hand to mouth a lot. You never know what's coming down the road.
"It is hard work, but it's meaningful work to me, because (it's) connected to who I am. I'm doing something that's meaningful in the sense that I have a relationship with what I do, and what I do matters to me."
It matters to audiences, too, because that's Gauthier's entire point. "You know, songwriting is a craft, and you have to understand that you're a craftperson if you're going to be a songwriter. If I just wrote for me, and I'm the only one who understood what I did, then it wouldn't be very important, would it? You have to communicate in a way that people will understand. That's where the craft part comes in."
Tucson audiences will experience songcraft from all of Gauthier's albums, and the usually solo artist will be accompanied by guitarist Tom Utz. "He's from the Black Forest in Germany," she says. "I found him here in Nashville. We do a listening show. People sit back and listen. We tell stories and play songs; it's kind of a folk show."
And for a while, we'll share some of the luxury of Gauthier's borrowed time. "It gives me the opportunity to do things that I wouldn't do if I didn't have that feeling of being given an extra chance in life," she says, but she adds, "This is what I'm gonna be doing for a while, I think."