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There are two moments that define the life of Americana singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier: moving to Nashville and getting sober.
The latter happened 22 years ago, July 13, 1990, to be exact. At the time, Mary (her surname is pronounced go-SHAY) was recreating the Cajun delicacies of her Baton Rouge hometown at her own restaurant in Boston.
“I got arrested opening night for drunken driving,” Mary says candidly. “And in that little jail cell in Dorchester, Massachusetts, I saw the light.”
Eleven years later, empowered and full of adventure, she set foot for good in Nashville.
“It’s Mecca,” she says. “If you’re going to write songs in a serious way, this is still the place.”
And in Mary, a more “serious” songwriter would be hard to find. While she may still make a mean bowl of red beans and rice, her acclaim has come from putting pen to paper and picking up a guitar, resulting in six albums, including her 2010 masterwork, The Foundling. In February, the engaging performer released her first-ever concert album, Live at Blue Rock.
“I had never put out a live recording and the fans had been asking me for years,” she says of the project, which includes mesmerizing renditions of fan favorites like “Drag Queens in Limousines” and “I Drink.”
Despite her outsider stance toward the machinery of the Nashville music industry—“The business operates in a parallel universe. You don’t have to intersect with it unless you need something from it,” Mary says—it is “I Drink” that best connects her to contemporary country. Blake Shelton recorded the song on his 2004 album, Blake Shelton’s Barn and Grill.
“Blake cut that early in his career. I’ve read interviews with him where he feels [as if] he missed it, that he cut it too early in his career and they didn’t get to the bull’s-eye of that song,” Mary says of “I Drink,” which poignantly examines the natural instinct of an alcoholic. “My nature is to drink. For an alcoholic to not drink goes against their nature; it’s like asking a fish not to swim.”
For all her command of a lyric and the spotlight, however, Mary didn’t begin her career in music until much later in life. And she has some rabid Charlie Rich fans to thank—or blame—for that.
“The first concert I ever went to was Charlie Rich, who my mother loved. But my memories of that concert are marred by the abuse of the opening act by the audience. They kept screaming ‘Char-lie Rich, Char-lie Rich’ during the entire set. My little 10-year-old heart went out to him,” she recalls. “It scared me. I didn’t get into music until I was 40, probably because of that!”
Clearly, it was worth the wait. At a recent tribute to revered producer-engineer-artist Cowboy Jack Clement in Nashville, Mary brought the house down with a commanding take of “We Must Believe in Magic,” performing with an unshakeable sense of poise and purpose.
“I feel like I’m a journeyman now. It takes 10 years to get to being a journeyman in any craft, from welding to baking, to standing onstage and engaging an audience,” she says. “You have to become one with what you do to the point where you don’t think about it, you just are it.”
And, she advises, keep it simple—if you can.
“Like Johnny Cash always told people when they asked him about songwriting,” Mary says, “‘Write simple, kid. That’s the hardest possible way to write.’”