Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fame: Mary Gauthier at Towne Crier
What do Boy George, country music superstar (and co-host of The Voice) Blake Shelton, and R & B/gospel artist Candi Staton have in common? These disparate artists have each recorded the songs of restaurateur/chef/Americana troubadour Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY — it’s Cajun). Touring behind acclaimed new CD Live at Blue Rock, Gauthier brings those distinctive, powerful songs, plus a passel of fascinating stories, to the Towne Crier on Friday, March 8, at 8:30 p.m. If you fancy a fresh take on the journeyman archetype, plus some soulful tunes, head over to 130 Route 22 in Pawling. Gauthier will appreciate your efforts, and will tell you so, either in person or via Twitter.
“I like people,” she says in a Louisiana drawl both worldly-wise (she’s 50) and childlike (she’s having a ball). She and her Canadian band (and well-worth-catching opening act) Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller (below) are motoring north from Philly on I-78, looking for coffee — although she sounds plenty caffeinated. “I enjoy interactions. I like being accessible. I love social media. Isn’t it great? I like having ways to see how shows are landing, how the work is landing, how folks are receiving it. Twitter is an international ongoing conversation with a lot of people.”
She’s got a lot to talk — and sing — about, much of it documented in her “It Gets Better” video, in which she advises young LGBT kids to hang in there like she did, then performs her autobiographical “Drag Queens in Limousines.” Indeed, had erstwhile suicidal teen Gauthier checked out, she’d have missed the chance to be one of the only openly gay performers (aside from kd lang) invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, and she’d have missed those songwriting benedictions from Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. Not to mention having Boy George cover “Mercy Now,” arguably her most popular song. “It just came through me,” she says. “A gift from God.”
Evidently, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion, “There are no second acts in American lives,” was quite wrong. In her twenties and early thirties, Baton Rouge-bred Gauthier was a successful, insured, ass-kickin’ chef/restaurateur in Boston, yet she struggled with alcoholism. After getting sober, she channeled her unmedicated, open-flame intensity into tunesmithery, writing her first song at thirty-five. She made up for lost time, apprenticing with professional songwriter/producer Crit Harmon (“Mercy Now” and Blake Shelton hit “I Drink” are fruits of this union) and self-releasing her rough-hewn CDs. She eventually sold her interest in Boston’s popular Dixie Kitchen (they did not last long without her), put her trust in the muse, and moved to Nashville.
Live at Blue Rock, her ninth CD, brings that ongoing journey, and the willful iconoclast in the midst of it, into sharp focus. Buoyed by Mike Meadow’s subtle percussion and (Duhks co-founder) Tania Elizabeth’s avenging angel fiddle, Gauthier offers up some of her best-loved material, from a harrowing desertion ballad “Blood Is Blood” to the rousing, carnival-of-souls “Wheel Inside the Wheel” (covered by Jimmy Buffett). She rides the sound waves like a master, hypnotically reciting some songs, wailing others, conjuring an energy feedback loop between herself and a rapt audience. Like Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison album, and Merle Haggard’s classic “Okie From Muskogee” single, this is country music as participatory experience, not slick, cookie cutter pap. It’s riveting.
When asked when she knew it was time to do a live release, she says, “When I fired my manager. He kept saying ‘no one’s interested in live records.’ I think he’s wrong. I had to let him go. I’ve been twelve years on the road, I’m a journeyman, I’ve done my 10,000 hours, I want a live record, I think it’s time to capture it, fans have been asking for it for years, so I’m gonna do it.”
Over the course of our chat, Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller procure coffee for Gauthier, despite her apprehension about veering off the highway into the swamps of New Jersey. It’s a rare instance of our heroine taking no for an answer, and this does not quite fit the narrative. But, as she sips into her cell phone, she laughs and says, “I feel so taken care of. It’s really great traveling with folks. I’ve been traveling alone a long time and it’s really nice traveling with people.” —Robert Burke Warren
with Scott Nolan and Joanna Miller
Friday, March 8, 8:30 PM