“There’s freedom in knowing that you don’t have to know it all,” she says, “which is why to me, a song should end with a question, not an answer.” It might seem that after six groundbreaking albums of original songs, more than a dozen years of recording and touring around the world, a harvest of music industry awards, and covers of her songs by a roster of great artists – that Mary Gauthier (say it: go-shay) should have a handle on some of the big answers. Yet with each new album, with each new cycle of songs that illuminate her soul, with each old and new set of characters and life changes she introduces, Mary is always ending up with more questions. Where do her people come from and where do they go? How can they find shelter from the storm? What is the truth?
It is said that the master songwriters – the “truth tellers,” as Mary refers to the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith – always put a piece of themselves into every song and first shined light on the truth and lies of her world before she began to put pen to paper herself. It’s up to the listener to imagine what is real and what is a dream. This sense of autobiography has always loomed large in the work of Mary Gauthier. On her newest album, The Foundling, her first concept album, Mary opens the door on the defining circumstance of her life, the emotional journey and aftermath of finding the mother who surrendered her in New Orleans after her birth in March 1962 (the month Bob Dylan released his first album, to put a perspective on it).
On The Foundling, Mary explains via her website (www.marygauthier.com), “the songs tell the story of a kid abandoned at birth who spent a year in an orphanage and was adopted, who ran way from the adopted home and ended up in show business, who searched for birth parents late in life and found one and was rejected, and who came through the other side of all of this still believing in love.” Mary’s “compass” was Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, his classic concept album of 1975 (with “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”).
Written and recorded over the course of two years, The Foundling was produced in Toronto by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, using local musicians and his sister Margo Timmins on vocal harmonies. “Margo added another layer of emotional punch in the right places,” says Mary. She praises Mike’s ability “to capture my story and create moods around it, a dream soundscape. The musicians breathed their hearts and souls into my songs, and they brought them to life. I am pleased beyond my wildest dreams at how the record came out.”
Those familiar with the bones of Mary Gauthier’s life may find it difficult to choke back the emotion of the album, from the Gypsy-flavored opening of “The Foundling” (“a baby unwanted, unloved, and unblessed/ Left on a doorstep, an unbidden guest”), to the upbeat bluegrass groove on the bittersweet “Good Bye” (“I hit the wall then I hit the highway/ I’ve got the curse of a gypsy on my soul”); from the crushing phone conversation with the mother who refuses to meet her, “March 11, 1962” (“You say that I’m a secret, nobody knows/ And you can’t talk about it now, and you really gotta go,” co-written with Liz Rose), to the final epilogue of “Another Day Borrowed” (“I shook my fist at my father’s rage, I cursed my mother’s sadness/ But every home I tried to call my own, washed into a river of madness,” co-written with Darrell Scott).
The Foundling now provides a foundation, a starting point for Mary’s peripatetic odyssey. Orphaned at the St. Vincent’s Infants Home, she was eventually adopted by a couple from Thibodaux – Italian, Catholic and doomed. Raised in Baton Rouge, Mary felt a deep alienation – from her cookie-cutter neighborhood of little boxes, from school, and from her adoptive parents. “I felt like I was dying. My father was an alcoholic. My mother cried all the time. Both of them were suicidal. There was chaos and pandemonium in the family.” The only thing that was saving her was the music, the “truth-tellers.” But Mary was decades away from finding her muse as a songwriter.
At age 15, Mary famously stole her parents’ car and hit the road. It was the beginning of a downward spiral of substance abuse, multiple stints in detox and halfway houses and squatting with friends. She spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell in Salina, Kansas, until they kicked her out of the state, “and I just kept running.” Somehow, she got herself enrolled at LSU as a philosophy major, with assistance from the state and from the owner of a restaurant near campus where she was washing dishes.
But old habits die hard, and Mary was forced to drop out in her senior year. She moved from Baton Rouge to Boston and although still using, was able to hold down a counter job at a small café, where she was promoted to manager. Again, friends helped her back into school, this time at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She hatched a plan to open a New Orleans style Cajun restaurant in Back Bay, and Dixie Kitchen proved a success. She immersed herself in every aspect of maintaining the restaurant until the drudgery caught up with her and she had to run away. Again. The difference this time was that she finally got sober. When she did, the musical floodgates opened and the songwriting began.
Mary was as passionate about her songs as she was about soul food. Picking up a guitar, she made her way to open mic nights on Boston’s busy coffeehouse circuit and in 1997, at age 35, she released her debut album, titled (what else?) Dixie Kitchen. To her surprise, she was nominated for Best New Contemporary Folk Artist at the Boston Music Awards. She started traveling to workshops with the Nashville Songwriters Association and eventually sold her interest in the Dixie Kitchen restaurant to finance her second album.
Drag Queens in Limousines (1999, with her signature “I Drink”) drew a four-star rating in Rolling Stone and broke Mary’s career wide open, as she became a presence at folk festivals across the U.S. and Europe. The title tune won Best Folk/Singer-Songwriter Song at the first annual Independent Music Awards; the album earned the Crossroads Silver Star Award; and Mary was named Best Country Music Artist at the GLAMA’s (Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards). With her third CD, Filth & Fire (2002), Mary began an association with Gurf Morlix, former sideman and producer for Lucinda Williams; Gurf also produced major releases with Robert Earl Keen, Slaid Cleaves, Tom Russell and others. Filth & Fire was named Best Indy CD Of The Year by Jon Pareles of the New York Times, the Best Singer/Songwriter Album Of The Year by No Depression, and Freeform American Roots poll critics chose Mary as their Female Artist Of The Year.
With the release of her next album, Mercy Now (2005), again produced by Morlix, Mary graduated to major label status as she joined the prestigious Lost Highway label, home to Lucinda, Keen, Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Shelby Lynne, Ryan Adams, Lyle Lovett, and many others. Around the same time, Mary officially moved to Nashville. Mercy Now, with its updated version of “I Drink,” appeared on a score of year-end “Best Of” lists, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Billboard, and No Depression. Mary was named New/Emerging Artist Of The Year at the annual Americana Music Association Awards, and Bob Dylan included “I Drink” on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” program.
For her next album, Between Daylight and Dark (2007), Mary was teamed with master producer Joe Henry, whose impressive list of album credits to that point included work with Solomon Burke, Bruce Cockburn, Loudon Wainwright III, Susan Tedeschi, and Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint’s River In Reverse. “If she keeps this up, one day she may assume the mantle of Johnny Cash,” raved the New York Daily News; while the Boston Globe praised Mary’s “particular blend of toughness and vulnerability that puts her in a league with Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle.”
Now it all comes full circle back to The Foundling, as Mary Gauthier lives each day at a time, keeping the demons at bay, always looking for answers, always asking questions. “I’ve discovered we are all wanderers of sorts, we are all looking for meaning in lives that contain no guarantees. My birth mother and my adopted family loved me the very best they could and I am grateful for their sacrifices. I do have a good life. It has been a long road and it’s taken me longer than I am proud of, but these days I find myself at peace, grateful for each borrowed day.”
(biography by Arthur Levy, January 2010)