“Uncle Mary” On Her Friend John Prine, These Troubled Times
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. 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 devastating 2005 album “Mercy Now”.
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 Mary 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.
I talked to Mary at the home in Nashville she shares with her partner, singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris. Her speech carries the quiet intensity and passionate flares of a heartfelt performance. It was indeed a privilege to speak with her.
This is Pt. 2 of a two-part interview. In Pt. 1, Mary described how she was saved by songwriting, and shared her experience as an out lesbian in the Nashville music business.
DHG: Can we talk about John for a minute? Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship, and your feelings right now about that?
MG: Yeah. [Long pause.] I knew that what I really, really wanted to do when I was got signed to Lost Highway is get on the road with John. And the opportunity to convince him came through his manager, Al Bunetta. I actually pitched myself to Oh Boy! Records as an artist. Oh Boy! was owned by John and Al. They offered me a deal at the same time Lost Highway offered me a deal, and I went with Lost Highway, but I knew that they liked me because they offered me a record deal. John was a businessman. He did it [hired her to open for him] ’cause I had a record company behind me, all the momentum – the press was writing about me. John didn’t need me to sell tickets, but I was definitely – I had more value than I would today in the marketplace because I was new and I had that major label behind me. When you have that kind of push behind you, you have a big, big team, and it’s a very different thing than just being little me, managing my career and my little record label.
But it worked real well for me. And I got in front of large crowds. Got to sing with him – he used to bring up the opening act to sing “Paradise.” In a 5,000-seat theater that’s been sold out, with just a guitar and my voice. An incredible opportunity, and I learned a lot from it. And I of course was already a huge super-fan of John’s. And being able to do those shows really brought me into the Prine world. And it’s just a privilege.
I read the Rolling Stone essay that Todd Snider wrote the day after John died and the title of it was, “I Can’t Believe I Got to Know Him.” I feel that way. I can’t believe I knew him. I can’t believe…[pause]…his spirit goes wherever spirits go and he’s no longer in human form. I’m honestly starting to chew on this word prophet around John Prine. He came with a message of love. And it crossed all borders. He’s being grieved in a really big way around the world because he brought love, and he did it in a way that’s palatable for everyone. That’s what a prophet does, teaches us how to love. John did that better than any songwriter I know.
DHG: So how are you feeling now about John? You’re processing this…in a way it sounds like you’re thinking about his legacy. But you guys had a personal relationship too, right?
MG: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we weren’t best friends, but we hung out at the Grammys, and we’d see each other around town. Nashville for the longest time was a small town, until that television show [“Nashville,” presumably] and it became a city after that. So I’d see him at dinner parties and I hung out with him at Beth Nielsen Chapman’s studio, and hung out with him and Fiona at different events. So, we had a relationship. I was talking with Jaimee [Harris, Gauthier’s partner] about that late last night when we couldn’t sleep again, about, “You know, what I’m feeling about John, I would be feeling whether or not I ever met him.”
The impact he had on me and the grief and loss that I’m feeling is not necessarily tied to the fact that I knew him. It’s tied to something so big. So, so big. Gillian Welch in her Instagram post after John died said that his songs were snapshots of his soul. And I think that they were. They are. And in that way, it’s eternal. If you want to know John, just listen to the songs, that’s all you need to know. That’s who he is – that’s who he was. There was no difference.
DHG: It seems so effortless, too.
MG: That’s who he was. He’s that guy. He likes Christmas trees year round. He’s got the heart of a nine year old. He’s sweet as he could be. He’s gentle. He’s kind. He is whatever the opposite of an asshole is. I don’t know, man, the word “prophet” just keeps coming to my mind. I know that he was otherworldly. Fiona put that on her Instagram, that she knew he was otherworldly, too. There was something to him that was different, and it made him so, so special. And those songs came from that place. And I just think it’s a high, high level of love. And that’s through simplicity. It’s not complex. We all miss it ’cause we’re zooming past. It’s simple. It’s in the heart of a nine year old and that’s what he possessed.
DG: I actually have a nine year old and and I see what you mean. [Laughs.] I guess I’m lucky that I can look at that every day. I can be with that spirit every day.
MG: Yes! A nine year old can turn everything into an adventure. They still have that.
DHG: So what’s happening in the world right now – and it’s astonishing to me that it is global – is a really fucking heavy thing. And there’s a lot of ways in which it’s a very dark thing. There’s a lot of death and there’s more coming. Everyone has been touched one way or another. Before this is through, many people will be touched in a very personal way by tragedy. In a way, you’re an artist who has sort of specialized in really hard situations. And when I struggle with things like anxiety or depression, fear, sadness, loneliness, the hard, hard things, you’re one of the artists that I turn to. To sort of bring that to the surface and process it. Do you have any thoughts, things you’ve been thinking about relative to the time that we’re going through, that you would like to convey to our readers?
MG: Well, that’s a tough one cause we’re so in the middle of it. It’s hard to get perspective when your face is up against it. All you can see is what you’re squishing into. You don’t have the big picture view. I do know this: nothing means anything unless we give it meaning. Meaning is not inherent. I think we make meaning. I think that’s what we do. Woody Guthrie said human beings are nothing more than hope machines. And I think he’s right. And I think we’re also meaning-making machines. And so if I were asked to try to make meaning out of this, I could attempt to do so. But I don’t know if it’s gonna end up being the meaning other people make.
I remember being the recipient of so much empathy and tears touring Europe after 9/11. I got on one of the first planes overseas when they started flying again. And I did my tour, and complete strangers, when they heard I was American, came walking up to me and said they were so sorry for what happened. It hadn’t happened to me. I didn’t live in New York. I didn’t see anybody jumping out of a building. I didn’t lose anyone on 9/11. There was this outpouring of empathy and affection for what had happened to America, and any American was on the receiving end of that empathy. And then when Bush started that war, that misguided, illegal, destructive nightmare war – that we’re still in – everything shifted. And suddenly when people found out I was an American, they would associate me with this stuff.
I reached a point where I had to start shows with this Woody Guthrie song. I was starting shows with “This Land is Your Land,” to let folks know what side I was on. I really wasn’t in favor of the war in Afghanistan, and I really, really wasn’t in favor of going after Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. I thought it was insane.
But that’s the meaning people made out of things. And for a while we were all united as one planet and people felt for us, and everyone was so sorry about what had happened. They watched the people jumping out of a burning building, and we had unity, and we were together. Then the government starts this damn war, and suddenly, we’re not only not together, they fucking hate us.
And so, younger me would say, “We’re all gonna come together and we understand that we’re one race, one human race. And we all depend on each other. Our lives depend on each other’s good decisions. This is really connecting us. Good things will come out of this. We’ll find our way into some new connections that we didn’t have prior to this. It will shift the story of the human race.” But if politicians make dumb-ass decisions, it could go the other way, and I don’t know what anything inherently means until we put a story to it. And so we’re in this limbo right now. I think we have opportunities, lots of opportunities to do the right thing. Will we? I don’t know. I don’t know.
I do know when I go online to play a show, like I played a show online for my home club that I got started in on Harvard square called Club Passim, when we hit the button on YouTube Live, within seconds, I had people from over a dozen countries watching that show at the same time. I had New Zealand, Australia, I had Israel, Brazil, I had Canada, and a lot of Germans and people in Italy, and Holland. Suddenly we have this technology that they’re all the same show at the same time. I’ve never experienced that before as an artist. I’ve gone to all those places. I never had all those people in the same room at the same time. So that’s a change.
But what does it mean? I don’t know! Where do we end up after this? I have no idea. I know it could go either way, and I don’t have any confidence at all that the American government will do the right thing. In fact, I’m 100% sure whatever the right thing is, they’ll do the opposite, because that’s what he’s done since he stole the election. He’s gonna do everything wrong, according to me; as soon as I figure out what’s right, he’ll do what’s wrong. But even sometimes doing the wrong thing leads to something that might be better. I don’t know anything about what’s next. I don’t know. I do think the world is shrinking, that’s for sure.
DHG: Yeah. I notice, more than I ever have, because of the contagion factor, how much we rely on each other to be safe or to not be safe. If I’m going to the store and I’m wearing a protective mask, I might be wearing it to protect myself, or I might be wearing it to protect the person next to me, from me. And I don’t know which it is, right? Nobody really knows. But what we do have in front of our faces on a daily basis is, “My God, we’re so dependent on each other for our safety and our own protection.”
MG: Yeah. And we’re vulnerable.
MG: So I would imagine that vulnerability is going to terrify people and there’ll be things like rich people building moats around wealthy communities. We can’t come out without having credentials. And, because of that vulnerability, the people who have privilege are gonna exercise that muscle. ‘Cause it is real scary. And the poor people are gonna see it fall in the other direction. Like it always does. The people who got the most pain inflicted after Katrina were the poor people in New Orleans. The way that these things always fall in an unjust and unequal society. But yeah, I feel it too, that sense of, somebody’s decision six towns over, it’s gonna affect my life right now. And then, when people don’t think in terms of the greater good it makes me angry.
I went on a walk the other day, and this group of 20 frat boys were doing the frat boy thing and I’m just like, “Oh my God, what are you fuckin’ doing? You’re supposed to be sheltering in place. You gotta walk six feet away from each other, you guys are drinking beer and laughin’ it up out here like nothing’s going on and it’s just so selfish. And that kind of stuff is really makin’ me mad right now because we lost John, and we’re going to lose our elders. We’re gonna lose our masters. You want to protect the vulnerable, and that’s something that pushes up against this rugged individualism in America. [Frat boy impression] “My freedom!” And that theme that we’ve been taught, that we have these rights, and I don’t remember ever being taught about sacrificing for the greater good.
That sounds like socialism, which is mortifying. Well, actually it’s protecting your grandparents. But it’s complicated and it’s a hard thing right now in the middle of it to know which way this is going to go. I’m 58 years old. I’ve seen quite a bit of shit. There’ll be things that come from it that will be shockingly beautiful. There’ll be things that come from it that will be mortifying. And as always, there will be no black and white. We’ll have to make peace with that universal gray in the middle. There’ll be good, there’ll be bad. And I wish we would fall more in the direction of good, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I think we’ll probably make terrible decisions as a culture and end up spreading it again. I don’t see, I don’t see any great leaders rising out of this, but it’s pretty hard. The mayor says one thing, governor says another.
DHG: I want to ask you a question that’s entirely self-serving. One of the inspirations for doing Country Queer in the first place was just knowing that you’re out there doing your thing. And you started following us fairly early on, and you’ve been engaging along the way on Twitter in a supportive way. And even doing this interview – you have very little to gain by having your interview published in Country Queer. We are small potatoes. So I want to ask you, what is it about what we’re doing that you think is valuable?
MG: Well, how old are you?
MG: Okay. So we’re the same age. Do you remember silence equals death?
DHG: Yeah, I was in San Francisco.
MG: Yeah. That’s why I’m doing this. Silence equals death. I don’t want to hide. Now, I’m not going to march into a place with a rainbow flag and hit people in the face with it. But I’m not going to be silent either. And I think the genre has gotten way more bigoted, way more constricted, way more homophobic, and the rest of the country’s going in the other direction. And I think it’s a brave and beautiful thing that you’re doing. And when I see courage and people speaking out, I want to be part of it.
DHG: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
MG: Well, thank you for what you do. And you provide visibility for people, and it’s really, really important that the audience knows that everyone’s not straight. And that we come in a variety of flavors. And that’s why the rainbow flag, ’cause we’re not all gay in the same way. Bisexual, two-spirited, transgender – there’s complexity to this sexuality and it’s really important that the word queer is the one that we use because it fits the rainbow flag. It’s all of us. And it’s a form of resistance, what you’re doing, and I dig it. I love it.
DHG: What are you working on now?
MG: I’m working on a book called “Saved By a Song”. It’s part memoir, part songwriting manual, and it’s part about recovery, because I’m also an addict and an alcoholic, and songwriting and recovery go hand in hand for me. So I’m trying to explain that.
DHG: Who’s the publisher, and when should we expect it to come out?
MG: It’s gonna be on St. Martin’s Press, probably 2021.
DHG: Thank you so much, Mary. Take care of yourself.
MG: Thank you!
Read Mary’s remembrance of John Prine here, and tune into her live streaming shows every Sunday at 2pm on Facebook at @marygauthiersongs