Once a month, Mary Gauthier and her friend and mentor Carol Young had the same conversation.
“Please tell me I’m not crazy,” Gauthier would say. “Please tell me that I’m not delusional. There’s a lot of people out there running around who think they can sing and dance and act and they’re nuts. I need you to tell me honestly, as a friend and a mentor, if I’m one of them.”
Gauthier knew that she had talent as a singer-songwriter. She had heard as much from those who listened to her first two albums - 1997’s Dixie Kitchen and 1999’s Drag Queens in Limousines - and she felt it in her gut, but to leave a full-time job and move to Nashville to chase the dream full-time was a risky one, especially at 40.
“Walking away from successful businesses and moving to Nashville at 40 to be a songwriter,” she mused, “there were a lot of people who checked the ‘Mary’s gone crazy’ box.”
They were wrong, and they should have known better, simply because Gauthier’s life never followed a conventional course. A former chef, the New Orleans native had to hit bottom before finding her true vocation in life, and if that didn’t happen until her mid-30s, so be it.
“I’m a trained chef,” she said. “I’ve been partners in three different restaurants and I had a whole other life before I did this. I was busy in the kitchen for a long, long time. But here’s what happened. I got arrested for drunk driving and I had been arrested before, but I wasn’t old enough for it to really scare the s**t out of me. I was 29, I got pulled over, I was drunk, it was opening night of my second restaurant and it was a giant red flag. I was humiliated, it wasn’t cool, and it wasn’t fun. It was sloppy, it was expensive, it was embarrassing, and that was it for me. I put down the booze, and after I did that it cleared up so much time. There was so much time on my hands; I had no idea how all-consuming my partying was. And in that time that got freed up, I found my way to songwriting and open mics and playing original songs out in front of people, and I caught fire with it. I just fell in love with it, it’s what I wanted to do, and slowly I started to move away from the restaurants and toward being a songwriter. Ten years after that I moved to Nashville.”
And she’s never looked back, with the exception of revisiting her past at times in her songs, which are raw and relevant, as well as real and poetic at the same time. Six studio albums in (and with one currently being worked on), Gauthier is one of Americana music’s best storytellers as well as one of the most willing to bare her soul to her audience.
“That’s the only way I know how to write,” she said. “If I could go out and write about other people’s s**t, I would. (Laughs) But I don’t know how. When I sit down to write, it’s automatically personal. I can write about characters, but only characters I can deeply relate to. So in that sense, it’s still personal. I read somewhere that all fiction is biography and all biography is fiction, so I think for everybody who writes, it’s personal in some form. Mine is maybe more than some, but I can’t explain it except for that’s just the only way I know how to do it.”
And to think, it all started at the age of 35, when she penned her first song, proving that it’s not where (or when) you start, but where you finish.
“As long as you don’t pick ‘I want to be a pop star at 50,’ because certain things just ain’t gonna happen,” said Gauthier, 51. “But writers generally mature and write better as they get older. There’s more to write about, there’s wisdom, there’s certainly a lot of experience you pack into each year, and hopefully we learn from it. And I think in the genre that I work in, age is not really an issue. Look at Willie. He’s 80 now and he’s still rocking and rolling. So it’s not a problem and there’s no reason it can’t get better. There are certain things you gotta do: you’ve got to take care of yourself, you gotta stay relevant by continuing to read and stay in touch with the world around you, and you’ve got to surround yourself with great people. If you can do that, you can keep this thing going for a long, long time.”
Tonight, Gauthier’s tour in support of her first live album, Live At Blue Rock, lands in New York City at Hill Country Live, and those who have seen her on stage will undoubtedly tell you that when it comes to performance, she’s top-notch. So why the long wait for a concert disc?
“I’d like to say there was a big plot involved, but there really wasn’t,” she said. “What happened was, it was the right show, it was caught the right night, the room had the equipment and we recorded the show, so it just made sense to put it out. It sounded great, it was something fans have been asking for for a long time, and I think it takes a long time to get to the point where you’re good enough to put a live show out and have it be great. There are lots of skills involved in performing that aren’t involved in going to the studio to record. I think it took a decade to get confident that it was good enough to release as a permanent record.”
There’s that modesty again.
“I’m cautious and I’m conservative,” said Gauthier. “I want to give people my best.”
She always does, and though there were plenty of twists and turns to get here, she appreciates the journey and the destination.
“It all has unfolded beautifully. I feel as though I’m richly, richly blessed. It just makes so much sense, and looking back over it, it’s like a beautiful dance.”
Mary Gauthier plays Hill Country Live in NYC tonight, October 2. For tickets, click here.