Her appreciation for words and undeniable work ethic have made Mary Gauthier a well-respected name in the music industry. She’s a storyteller, and songwriting is her medium. Her adoption and life as a runaway teen as well as her battle with addiction are the experiences that inform her lyrics, which are raw and often heart-wrenching. Mary has worked with some of music’s most notable names, including Leonard Cohen, Indigo Girls, Tim McGraw, Jimmy Buffett, Bill Chambers, Amy Helm and Bettye Lavette. She’s received countless awards and nominations, and though it has been 20 years since Mary released her first album, Dixie Kitchen, she is still very much in the business. This year promises new recordings, performances and the release of her new book. We’re thrilled to introduce you to the humble, authentically charming Mary Gauthier as today’s FACE of the South.
You didn’t begin your songwriting career until you were well into your 30s. What gave you the courage to begin writing?
Music, for me, has always been a way of expressing emotion. [The songs] have been an avenue towards self expression and the knowledge that I am not alone.
I began writing after I got into recovery. I quit drugs and alcohol when I was 27, and a couple of years after that, I started feeling this urge to write songs. It had always been there, but I had never listened to it. I tiptoed my way into songwriting, and it only got more and more serious, until it became consuming. At some point, I made a decision to give it a real go and see if I could make a living as a songwriter. No one is more surprised than I am, looking back, that I managed to pull it off. I don’t understand how I got away with it, and I am still getting away with it. I fell in love with songwriting, and I haven’t looked back.
Your albums are largely informed by your personal experiences with adoption, addiction, heartbreak and transformation. Was addressing these issues in writing a way of healing for you?
Not consciously. Although upon reflection, that is exactly what my brain was doing. It was trying to make sense of a very confusing experience and put music to complex emotion and articulate some very deep struggle. It is surprising to me that this happened below the level of conscious awareness. I was just trying to write the best songs I could. And I modeled them after the songs that I love. I don’t think my songs are any more personal than Hank Williams’ were. I think that is what songs are supposed to be. It is deeply personal songs that connect the most. That is what I was doing, and as I became aware of it, I began doing it more and more consciously.
The great artists and the great songwriters are in touch with what they feel and what they see and what they experience in the world, and they put that into their art unedited. It is not thought of as healing, it is just thought of as honest. There is a relationship between being honest and being healthy.
How has your work stylistically changed between that first album and your seventh studio album, Trouble & Love?
I love stories. Story is the key to songwriting, and the story is what creates empathy and connection. Songs, when they work, are creating empathy and connection. So story is very, very important to me. And as a storyteller, who uses songs as a medium, I don’t focus as much on the genre but on the story. I think I am on that niche of Americana/folk, but I don’t spend a lot of energy on creating new sounds as I do on creating new stories.
How has the South’s culture of storytelling impacted your work?
Stories are a direct line to other people’s hearts. We have a rich, rich story telling history in the South — especially in the South. Southern writers are world-renowned storytellers. Mastery of language and stories is the goal for me. That is not really a Southern thing. Bob Dylan came from up in Minnesota, and Leonard Cohen came from Canada. Because I am of the South (from New Orleans), and I live in the South here in Nashville, I work under the umbrella of Southern storytelling, because that is where I come from, and that is comfortable for me. But many, many, many great artists have very little do with the South. Either the song connects, or it doesn’t connect. I want to connect, and I want to connect emotionally.
At The Porch TN’s Mercy & Magic, you will take the stage with Wally Lamb. What can we expect?
Expect the unexpected. We are not going to script this thing. We are going to get up there and start talking, and we could end up anywhere. I think what we have in common is an absolute passion for the English language and using it to tell stories. We both believe in taking our time and making words count. I think we will be discussing our process, how we create our stories and where characters come from. I am really curious about his process as a fiction writer, and I hope he is interested in my process as a songwriter. The discussion is likely to just take off in directions it wants to go without us controlling it.
I am very supportive of The Porch and their mission. Writing can be very solitary, and The Porch creates community around a very solitary act. They provide a service that has made Nashville a better place to live.
You are a self-proclaimed workaholic. How do you spend your time when you are not working?
I don’t know! All I ever do is work! I love to go hiking — Warner Park is my favorite. There is something about writing and walking that go together. Some part of the brain that writes is busy at work when you are walking. And I like to go to good restaurants. I cook and I hold dinner parties. I like to bring different kinds of people to my house, it is kind of like a salon. Different personalities, different types of creative people getting together and having conversation is always interesting to me. I like people who are well read. I like to talk about art.
Do you have any standout favorites among the crowd of Nashville restaurants?
Man, our restaurant scene has exploded hasn’t it? There is so much to choose from. My go-to place that I have always been very fond of is Margot’s. I have been going to Margot’s since she opened, and I still go to Margot’s regularly. She is just incredibly consistent. But we have so many great, great restaurants. I like quality, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. I enjoy an environment where I can talk. I like good food, but if I can hear the person next to me, that is a problem for me. While the food is an important part of the experience, the conversation is just as important. I like to be comfortable, like an old pair of boots. I am not a trendy person. In fact, I am borderline un-cool at this point.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Honestly, it is not a singular event but that 20 years in, I am still in the business. I have succeeded by not going out of business. In the arts, I think that is a big deal. My success is not flashy, I don’t have big hits and I don’t have one claim to fame thing, but I have lots and lots of small successes, which have amounted to a career. I do art on my own terms. I am self-directed and independent and am getting away with it. That is a freaking miracle. If I show up with a guitar, I just need a spotlight, a bar stool and a bottle of water. It is a folk singer’s career, and I am deeply grateful and blessed to have it.
Can you recommend any good reads?
I am always reading books. I have so many books. It looks like a crazy book woman lives here. In fact, I think she does. Right now, I am on a non-fiction binge and am currently devouring the Heart of Democracy by the great Parker Palmer. Before that, I read Just Mercy. I think that reading serves my writing well.
What are three things — excluding faith, family and friends — you can’t live without?
I don’t think I could live without coffee; I am pretty sure I can’t live without books; and I am freaking addicted to my iPhone.
Spend an evening with Mary Gauthier and New York Times best-selling author Wally Lamb at The Porch’s Mercy & Magic fundraising event on Saturday, March 11, 2017, at Green Door Gourmet in Nashville, TN. Mary and Wally will reflect on ways in which literature and music have made a crucial difference in their lives. Proceeds for the event benefit The Porch Writers’ Collective. VIP tickets include a meet-and-greet reception before the show with wine, beer, a signature cocktail and heavy hors d’oeuvres. General admission tickets are $50, VIP tickets are $150. Click here to purchase Mercy & Magic tickets.
Meet more amazing FACES of the South in our FACES archives. Prepare to be inspired!