Mary Gauthier On New Love, Lost Friends And The Power Of Song
In her 2021 book Saved By A Song, Nashville’s Mary Gauthier observes that “I started writing songs a few years after I emerged from the wreckage of addiction. In retrospect, I believe my songs served as stepping stones to a new life. My songs, like me sharing my story, helped me find purpose in the pain.”
The last time WMOT sat down with Gauthier in early 2018, she’d released Rifles & Rosary Beads, an album of songs co-written with veterans and in some cases their spouses, exploring the troubled souls of warriors who carry wounds seen and unseen. For the participants in the program Songwriting With Soldiers, healing and managing depression or PTSD was an explicit goal of the encounters with professional songwriters. In Episode 217 of The String, Mary returns to the show to talk about how the experience helped her realize that she’d been unconsciously seeking therapy through storytelling and music all along.
“The song is a springboard for something bigger,” Gauthier tells me. “And I tried to articulate that in the book. What I keep coming to is empathy. A great song can bring an audience into the experience of someone else. And you enter the skin of that person for those three and a half minutes and get it. You become it. For the veterans it has been transformative, because they felt so alone. And honestly, for me, that had to be what was going on.”
There haven’t been more than a handful of repeat guests on The String in these six years, but with Mary Gauthier it’s a no-brainer. She’s one of the most interesting figures in Nashville - a philosopher of song and a gifted teacher and speaker. The book allowed her to lay her remarkable story out end to end, mingling memoir with songwriting insights and laying bare her vulnerabilities and struggles. For those who are new to the story, Mary was abandoned and left to a Catholic orphanage as an infant - a foundling, as she put it on perhaps her most nakedly personal album. Living with a dysfunctional adoptive family as a kid she slid into alcohol and drug abuse. She famously spent her 18th birthday in jail. And yet she climbed back from a self destructive abyss through the work of opening restaurants in Boston and starting an arduous process of becoming a songwriter. Knowing her today - one of Nashville’s most in demand educators and speakers and a community leader - it’s really astonishing to read the details of her dark times. Mary Gauthier is the comeback kid.
While I’ve interviewed Mary numerous times, I’d never been able to ask about her Boston restaurant days in detail, so we talk about that a lot. Food was her love language before music was, and she said that when she arrived in the city to get a fresh start and escape bad influences in Louisiana, she was able to find partner investors to launch a simple sandwich shop. At least that’s how it started.
“We brought the sandwich shop to a higher place. And then (the investors) wanted to open a full service restaurant,” she says. “I went to chef school and then they wanted to open a full service restaurant. They had their eye on a place and I didn't know what the concept should be. And my teacher from chef school was Italian - chef Rosario - and he said, ‘Maria, you can only do one thing. You have to do what's in your heart.’ And so in my heart was South Louisiana.” Thus was born the Dixie Kitchen, a name Gauthier says she’d clearly not have supported had she known then what she knows now. But the place was a success, with a cajun/creole menu of gumbo, red beans and rice and jambalaya.
The events around the early days of the restaurant make for astonishing reading in Saved By A Song. She’s jolted into finally embracing sobriety and recovery when she’s arrested for driving under the influence on opening night. A short time later she tagged along to an open mic night at Boston’s famous Club Passim with a server friend of hers who went up on stage and transformed herself in front of the crowd. “Her confidence on stage far surpassed her confidence on the dining room floor waiting tables,” says Gauthier. “And I was just completely and totally amazed at the beauty of that transition for her, and also I saw something in what she was doing that really spoke to me. I wanted to do that.”
We talk extensively about the arduous journey from that spark to her first (disastrous) open mic appearance and the tenacity it took to keep going back to the stage and the creative well as she remade herself as an artist. And we talk about new material of course.
Gauthier’s new album Dark Enough To See The Stars is her first of solo-written songs since 2014’s Trouble And Love. And when writers describe it as studies in love and loss, they’re not leaning on cliche. The first three tracks are explicitly about the joy and fulfillment Gauthier’s experienced over the past five years in her love relationship. And songs like “How Could You Be Gone” and “Where Are You Now” she processes absence and mourning. She’s lost friends David Olney, John Prine and Nanci Griffith recently, and quite a few less famous friends and loved ones besides. It’s no surprise to anyone to say that it’s honest, relatable and as easy on the ears as it is succor for the heart.