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A tale of two lives
How Mary Gauthier found her roots in Nashville
Related Links

Mary Gauthier's official Web site

They make movies out of the raw material of a life story like Mary Gauthierís. A turbulent upbringing as an adopted child in an alcoholism-racked Louisiana household from which she ran away in her teens by swiping her parentsí car; almost a decade of heavy drinking, hard drugging, and living on the streets, with occasional stints in detox and jail; a move to Boston, where, after enrolling in the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she put her Thibodeaux roots to good use as the owner and chef of the popular Cajun restaurant the Dixie Kitchen. If the story ended there, it would be compelling enough. But Gauthier had always loved music. Sheíd sold the Dixie Kitchen in 1999, and in 2001 she moved to Nashville, where her fledgling singer-songwriter forays earned her critical acclaim and eventually a major-label career on Universalís rootsy Lost Highway imprint, which released Mercy Now, her fourth album, in February. When I caught up with her over the phone, she was in a Glasgow hotel room in the midst of a European tour that had her both opening shows for Willie Nelson and headlining clubs.

"Iím just blown away by the opportunities Iíve had in life," says Gauthier, whose American tour will bring her to the Big Easy in Portland this Friday, the Iron Horse in Northampton on Monday, and Bostonís Paradise in Boston on Tuesday. "And now, to be making music professionally, for someone in the middle of her life ó this is incredible."

Gauthier has been clean and sober since the day the Dixie Kitchen opened its doors, thanks in part to a DUI citation she received that same night in 1990. Sheíd been dabbling with acoustic guitar, but as of 1997, when she turned 35, she hadnít written a single song. "I felt like, okay, Iím in my mid 30s, Iím supposed to know what I wanna be when I grow up! And I had tried some things, and it looked to everyone like I was doing well. I owned a restaurant, I had money, but deep down inside, I knew that that wasnít sustainable for me. I thought that once the restaurant stabilized and things became financially lucrative I would be happy, and those things happened and I just became more miserable. There was something else I needed to do with my life and I was struggling to find it. I didnít find it until I started to become a songwriter."

Gauthier began penning tunes and throwing her name in the hat during open-mike nights at Club Passim, Java Joeís in Milton, and other night spots and tiny coffeeshops around town. "I made every single mistake a person can make on stage ó forgetting lyrics, not being able to tune my guitar, playing the harmonica solo with the wrong-key harmonica . . . you name it. But I survived, and thatís when I realized this isnít gonna kill me no matter what screws up."

In 1997, she self-released the gritty, plain-spoken Dixie Kitchen, an album full of hard-luck stories that earned comparisons with Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and John Prine and garnered a Boston Music Awards "Best New Contemporary Folk Artist" nomination. Emboldened, she sold the restaurant to pay for 1999ís well-received Drag Queens in Limousines (also self-released on her Groove House label). Once sheíd settled in Nashville, she hooked up with the indie Signature for 2002ís Filth & Fire, and the glowing reviews brought her to the attention of Lost Highway.

Anchored by 10 solemnly drawled songs that travel down gloomy roads, linger at seedy hotels, and burrow into the minds of the drunks, drifters, and desperados who populate Gauthierís lyrics, Mercy Now is her darkest and starkest work yet. She does appreciate all the positive ink thatís been spilled over the disc. But itís the kind words sheís received from fans and especially musical peers and idols (Emmylou Harris said how much Mercy Now had moved her) thatís fed her growing confidence. Just a week ago, she recounts, Willie Nelson pulled her aside to say, "Mary, you write really good songs."

"The whole thing is surreal," she concludes. "I risked it all when I sold my restaurant and decided to do this. I went from a very comfortable financial situation to making less than $50 a gig. Thereís this Greek choir in your head that screams ĎDonít quit your day jobí whenever you do something like this. Theyíre wrong! Itís not supposed to be easy. When youíre out there shaking, not knowing how youíre gonna pay your rent, youíre walking in both fear and grace, and it demands that you rise to a certain level or youíre not gonna survive. Thatís when you find out what youíre really made of."

Mary Gauthier opens for Kathleen Edwards this Tuesday, May 10, at the Paradise, 967 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston; call (617) 228-6000.

Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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