The Godmother of Queer Country on Coming Up Gay In Nashville
By Dale Henry Geist
“You want a song that will wreck you,” a friend of mine once told me, when I complained about the vapidity of some songwriter. He was right; I ask a lot of art: I want it to reach in and grab me by the heart.
Mary Gauthier has been writing songs that will wreck you for a couple of decades now. An out lesbian from the start (she calls herself “two-spirited”) she first garnered national attention with her song “I Drink,” covered by Blake Shelton in 2004, closely followed by her 2005 album “Mercy Now”. The hushed supplication of its title song, delivered with a dolorous bayou accent, cemented her place among the finest songwriters of her generation.
Covers by stars like Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, Bobby Bare, Bill Chambers, Mike Farris, Candi Staton, Kathy Mattea and Bettye Lavette have secured her place in the Nashville songwriting establishment, while she’s continued playing the folk clubs and festivals that she came up in. Her 2018 masterpiece, “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” written with veterans of the armed services, earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album and an Album of the Year nomination from the Americana Awards, and she was named International Artist of the Year by The Americana Association UK.
This interview was originally supposed to happen in person at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco last fall, but family duties kept me from going. Mary graciously rescheduled around her mid-April Bay Area tour dates, but…you might say that events intervened. I finally talked to her at the home in Nashville she shares with her partner, singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris. Her speech carries the quiet intensity and passionate flares of an enthralling performance. Forthright, radically compassionate, wise – Mary Gauthier was all I’d hoped for.
This is Pt. 1 of a two-part interview. In Pt. 2, we ask Mary for her thoughts on the passing of her friend John Prine, and on the global crisis we find ourselves in.
DHG: So…how are you?
MG: Oh, wow. That used to be something I could answer. Three o’clock in the morning feels like four in the afternoon. My relationship with time is all messed up and I I don’t know what’s next. And so I’m on the edge and I’m really grieving John Prine’s death, and I’m afraid there’s more to come. I guess I’m physically okay. Emotionally I’m all messed up, but yet I’m grateful because I have the great privilege of having a home to shelter in and food. I’m very privileged and I know that, and I have much to be grateful for, but it’s a weird time and I don’t really know how I am other than that.
DHG: You’re well known for having songs that deal with characters who are in a really hard situation, whether it’s going through the pain of a broken heart, or emotional trauma, or even physical trauma, like on your last record [“Rifles and Rosary Beads”]. When I take in a song like “The War After the War,” I feel like I’m experiencing some of the feelings of those characters, but because I’m doing it in a safe space – I’m just sitting there listening to a song – it seems to have a purgative effect, where I can come out on the other side feeling tender, but a little bit more in touch with myself as a human. So my question to you is, how much of this is intentional on your part? How intentionally have you pursued that angle in your art?
MG: Well, first of all, that’s a very high compliment. I don’t think that there’s a higher compliment you can give an artist. I think the purpose of the bard and the reason I write songs is to do exactly that, to connect me to you, to connect you to soldiers, to connect gay people to Christians, to connect people that aren’t aware of how connected they already are. That’s what the job is. And the best way to do that is through empathy. And I’ve learned as a songwriter to get the stories into the songs. Cause that’s the great connector. Once I can get you into someone’s story, you start to realize, “Oh my God, they’re talking about me.”
DHG: I think that you in particular – and maybe it’s because of your own background – are extremely good with sad stuff, hard, hard stuff. We can empathize with characters that are having a great time, too, but this isn’t your sweet spot. Other people may have gone through some of the same hardships you did, and come out the other side, but either they don’t want to deal with it or they’re expressing it from an angry or bitter place. How is it you were able to to take that pain and come at it from a loving place?
MG: I think that being a songwriter helps me to do that. I think that’s why I was pulled to it. I think that’s why I’ve been given this incredible gift of becoming and being a songwriter, because I really needed that. I really was angry and I had all kinds of emotional problems, and I had a really hard and painful bottom with drugs and alcohol, and part of digging out of that hole for me was, first I had to get sober, but second I had to do something that transforms the pain. And this is where songwriting came to the rescue. Songwriting can alchemize some of that stuff. And I think that’s why I go to the hard stuff because that’s where I’m most at risk myself of going under. So I’m taking it seriously. I don’t want to relapse. I don’t want to rage. I don’t want to inflict my pain on people in a way that causes them pain. So I’ve got to transform it. And how do I do that? I only know one way and it’s the alchemy of art. And so I go to it with a genuine, authentic desperation. And it serves me and it helps me, and I’m so grateful when people tell me it helps them. But I’m really focused, when I’m in it, on how do I make sense of this for my own sanity and my own soul.
DHG: You came to songwriting relatively late in life, at a time when you had a very full time job, running your own restaurant, right?
MG: Yes. Actually running three restaurants, and I was a couple years sober and got brought to an open mic with one of my waitresses, who was a student at Berklee. The restaurant was next door to Berklee College in Boston. And somehow when I went to the open mic, a light bulb screwed in and it was like, “I want to do that.” I want to write songs and play them on that stage. I always had a guitar, but never had the discipline to learn how to really play or write. And that was a big moment in my life. I went home after that open mic and and started working on it. I guess I was four or five years sober, which makes me, what?, 33, something like that, 34.
I was a maniac with the restaurants, I worked all the time and was really driven. The songwriting hit in a different place than the restaurant work. It felt important from the very beginning, and that’s never changed. And it became all-consuming. When I was about 10 years sober, I came to Nashville for the first time, and then I moved here when I was, I don’t know, 12 years sober or something like that. I’m 30 years sober this summer.
MG: Thank you. So I’ve been here 20 years. So at 10 years sober, I came here and I realized I needed to be here.
DHG: Let’s get into that in a second. I recently listened again to “Worthy” [from Gauthier’s 2014 album, “Trouble and Love”] and I read the lyrics. It seems like that song in particular was about that experience when you were about to undertake this artistic journey, where you’re peeling back all the layers until you got to some kind of a core of yourself that you felt was undeniable and pure and worthy. Clearly that’s when you decided, “Well, I’m going to write songs,” and do it in a way that was serious. And obviously your skill is high, so you’ve practiced your ass off. But did you think you would be successful in terms of making a living at it? And if so, what gave you that idea?
MG: Well, I had no idea. I really didn’t have any evidence when I quit the restaurant that it was going to somehow work out, but the way my mind worked around it was, “If I don’t give it 100%, I definitely won’t succeed. So I got to give it 100%. And if I fail, I always know how to talk rich people out of their money to open a restaurant. Rich people think the restaurant business is fun! So I’ve been able to find investors for restaurant projects three times by now.” So I figured if this didn’t work out, I could do that.
DHG: You came up musically in the New England folk scene. It seems like you had some success – you were getting booked at festivals and so forth – and you were obviously an out lesbian at that point. It seems like you might’ve had enough success there. The New England folk scene, nobody’s going to have a problem with it. But you decide to move to Nashville. Was there ever a thought in your mind that this might be a challenge culturally?
MG: Oh my God. It was terrifying. Yeah, it was absolutely terrifying, ’cause I knew I was heading for the buckle of the Bible Belt, and I knew that there was no way in hell I was ever gonna pass as straight. I am a challenge to people just when I walk into a room. And it’s confusing to people when I walk into a room sometimes, if they hadn’t been exposed to a two-spirited person. Like, man, I’m gay, but I’m also, I’m not transgender, but I’m complicated. The Prince line, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” Confusing to people.
And the New England folk scene embraced me kinda – I’m a southerner and I was always a southerner and I really sound like a southerner and I related more to Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams and John Prine and John Cash and Willie Nelson, and all of the people that were right here in this town. I thought, “Maybe I should go to Austin” as sort of a dodge – I knew I would be more accepted as a lesbian. But Guy Clark told me, “Look, when Kathy Mattea is looking for one more song for her record, and she needs to have it right away, she’s not calling people in Austin to fly to Nashville to play her a song. I’m on her speed dial ’cause I live here and I can toss a bunch of songs at her immediately.” He said, “You’re gonna want your songs recorded by other people. And Nashville is where that happens. And in my educated and experienced opinion, I think you should not go to Austin.” ‘Cause I had asked him why he left Austin and he said it was for that very reason, you needed to be where publishing happened. This is where it happened. And it turned out to be very, very good advice. Coming here is what gave me the breaks that I needed to turn this into a small business.
DHG: So I guess at the time, Guy had gone there, and then Townes and Steve Earle. So they had followed up on this idea that Kris Kristofferson had planted, that you could go to Nashville but do folky stuff. But if you were credibly country you could get some covers. And you were following up on what those guys had pioneered in that way.
MG: Absolutely. And there was always these artists that would record great folk songs. I mean Bobby Bare cut folk songs and it’s no coincidence that, on Bobby’s last record, he cut a couple of my songs. He likes likes good songs and he doesn’t care the genre. He can make them his own. That’s what great singers do. Lucinda didn’t break for awhile, but she got those Chapin [Mary Chapin Carpenter] cuts and they ran up the charts. So I saw it happen in front of me. And Gillian [Welch]. Gil and Dave [Rawlings] came here and Emmylou [Harris, duh] embraced them, and [Welch’s song] “Orphan Girl” was on that record that Emmy made that was a breakthrough record [“Wrecking Ball”]. And then Gil and Dave got a big break with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
DHG: That’s awesome. To hear about the history. The relationship between folk and country is just fascinating to me. And then Americana comes in and resolves those tensions, but there’s still the mainstream country thing and they’re cutting songs, like you said, just great songs. So you go there and you’re working for Harlan Howard, you’re in Nashville and you’re out and gay and looking like it. How did that pan out? You were scared before you went there. Was it easier than you thought?
MG: Yeah, I figured the one songwriter I knew who was likely to give my songs a shot was Harlan Howard. I didn’t know he had died four months before I got here. So I got a meeting at his office with his widow. And she gave a listen and she said to keep bringing her songs. She was the only publisher I talked to. She said keep bringing her songs, and before you know it, she’s pitching my songs and then she’s pitching me, and she gets me a record deal, because that’s how it works here. The publishers win when they get their writers a record deal, cause the song starts to sell. So that happened real fast for me. I came here and within a year and a half I was with Melanie Howard, and she had one hell of a Rolodex. I got to meet some incredible people when I first got here. I mean, it was incredible. Oh, man.
DHG: So during this time it sounds like things went pretty smooth, and you didn’t experience any sort of discrimination because of your sexuality or your identity?
MG: No! It was weird! I thought it would be so hard and I really braced myself for it, but I think the songs kinda burned through the bigotry and prejudice. The songs did the work. They entered the room before I did. When I got signed to Lost Highway I went and sat down with the CEO and I said, “Listen, you know, I’m gay.”
And he goes, “Yeah, Mary, everybody knows you’re gay.”
“But I’m not gonna be not gay ’cause I’m on Universal. This is not something that I can undo.”
And he goes, “I been wanting to work with out artists my whole career. I’m so sick of working with people in the closet. It’s such a tightrope for the label to walk. Let’s do this.” So he embraced me.
And then Marty Stuart embraced me at the Opry and put me on TV. He put me on to sing “Mercy Now” on the Opry when it was on national television. And he put me in front of that audience. I thought, man, they’re gonna fucking lynch me. But because Marty said, “Listen to this woman. I really want you to listen to this,” they put their prejudice aside and they gave me a chance. I mean, I didn’t win over everybody, it’s a folk song that’s opposed to war, and clearly we were in the process of building up to a war. But I got a standing ovation and…and I think something happened there. And I just realized if I can just focus on the songs, I’m going to be fine. The songs do the work. They’ve always done the work for me. It’s it’s really kind of amazing how a song can disarm people if it’s infused with empathy and love.
DHG: One of the reasons that I started Country Queer was it felt to me like the mainstream country music culture – the radio stations and the fans all across the country and so forth – is a more conservative culture than, for instance, Americana or folk or dance music or whatever. So it’s interesting to hear that within the industry, that doesn’t really seem to have been an issue even as far back as 20 years ago.
MG: Not as bad as you would’ve thought it would be, but certainly country radio was never gonna play me. And the mainstream country fans were never going to embrace me. But that wasn’t what we were going for. We were going for those people who thought “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was cool, We were going for people who – sort of in between Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams. That’s where I fit. And really where I fit was in front of John Prine’s audience. I did a lot of touring with John, and that was the right place to put me. Those were the people who listened to the words of the song and internalized the lyrics. Not sort of the surface level stuff. And I think we were never going for mainstream country. That’s still a no go. I don’t think that’s changed. Might even be worse now. I mean Brandi’s done a great job, but did we hear her on country radio?
This is Pt. 1 of a two-part interview. In Pt. 2, Mary shares her thoughts on the passing of her friend John Prine, on the global crisis we find ourselves in, and more.