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Mary Gauthier: a phoenix rises from the filth and fire

By Clarissa Sansone, July 2002

First of all, it's pronounced go-shay (her last name, that is). But 41-year-old Louisiana native Mary Gauthier doesn't come across as the thin-skinned type to get miffed at mispronunciation.

As her press kit tells it, the singer-songwriter and former restaurant owner has led a hardscrabble, bootstrap existence: a dizzying mix of stolen cars, jail and detox. At 15, she stole the family car and sped away from her hometown of Thibodaux, La., in search of the place where she would fit in. By 16, she was in detox in Baton Rouge, and the very day she turned 18, she'd been jailed for theft in Kansas City. Her parents fetched her home, but she stole the car again.

"This time," reads her press bio, with a tinge of Unsolved Mysteries, "she never returned.

"Boy, that publicist did a good job," laughs Gauthier from her cell phone on the road somewhere outside of D.C.

While all the stories are true, Gauthier is careful not to drape her life with embellishment. She downplays the wild ride of her youth. The way she recounts her past is like the way she tells the stories on her latest album, keeping details down to earth, tied to unglamorous reality.

The forlorn, forsaken, lonely and less-than-hopeful populate the 10 originals and 1 cover that make up "Filth & Fire," Gauthier's third album and first for the small western Massachusetts label, Signature Sounds.

There are "cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels," at the "Camelot Hotel," and two homeless men living under a bridge in the Jimmy-Buffett-meets-Beckett "Christmas in Paradise.

Mostly, the songs Gauthier sings revolve around restlessness and motion, whether her characters yearn for escape or destination. Whatever they seek, however, they don't quite find it by the song's end.

"There is no resolution," Gauthier says of her songs. "The way that I write is the way that it is, and I don't see resolution."

"Things are left hanging," in her lyrics, says Gauthier, "because that's how life does ya.

Unless a musician's working on a concept album, Gauthier says that cultivating an overarching theme for an album "is not something you do consciously," but, in retrospect, "the characters and songs (on "Filth & Fire") are looking for something to believe in.

Litanies of wrong turns and exhausted possibilities recur in Gauthier's songs, as in "The Ledge": "chasing bliss, chasing my tail, chasing desire straight down to hell," and, later in the same song, "out of luck, out of time, out of control, out of my mind.

They are lyrics borne not merely of rhythm or cleverness, but experience. Gauthier says her "songs reflect…my own development as a human being." The tales are what matter most to her in her writing. "What's important for me is the stories," she says. "I look at myself as a storyteller," she explains, adding, "that's country music.

The influence country music has had on her is apparent in Gauthier's own work and in the artists she cites as influential, who also happen to be storytellers: John Prine, Nanci Griffith, Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall. "The two big glowing luminaries are Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams," she adds.

When pressed to choose one genre in which to place her work, Gauthier chooses "American roots music" - "I emphasize 'American,'" she says - over country.

While several of her songs, like the honky-tonk number "After You're Gone," clearly draw from the country tradition, there are also substantial elements of folk, soul and rock in her music.

"I'm just drawing from all of the different things that have happened before," says Gauthier of her style of music.

"Filth & Fire," produced by Austin fixture Gurf Morlix, features steel guitar on a song or two (courtesy of Morlix, who acts as the album's multi-instrumentalist), Peter Rowan's mandolin on others and a B-3 organ, played by former Faces member Ian McLagan, on a few numbers.

Gauthier's lyrical content also draws from a distinctly American tradition: that of the traveler, the pioneer. Her characters are physical and spiritual wanderers, embodiments of the very American equation that migration equals transformation.

Gauthier, who tours extensively on the other side of the Atlantic, says, "When I interview in Europe, they're convinced" that the desire for freedom and constant movement present in her songs, "is an American thing.

Musicians, specifically, "have that need to go," says Gauthier, pointing to the long tradition in American music of musician-as-rambler. "The difference between them and me," she points out, "is that they're men.

Gauthier is helping to establish the woman-wanderer's place in music, and she's been up to the task for a long time. She did indeed steal the car at 15, leaving her Thibodaux home. "I just had to go," she explains. "I was always feeling like I didn't fit in.

Whether her fleeing was to escape small-town life, Gauthier says, "I thought so at the time….but looking back, that's just the way I am.

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