My dad is 74 years old and lives four miles outside a small town in central Texas. Needless to say, he's not exactly up-to-date on the latest in alternative country. If he listens to anything other than his Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams records, it's usually a tiny AM station in Hamilton that still spins George Jones and Johnny Bush and Conway Twitty when it isn't broadcasting segments on an online garage sale called "Trading Post," the latest Farm Bureau crop report, or cattle prices from last Saturday's auction. So I was caught totally off-guard when he called the morning after the Americana Music Association awards show on Great American Country and asked, "Who was that woman who sang that song about mercy? She was the best thing on that program."
Like one of her songwriting heroes, Fred Eaglesmith, Mary Gauthier loves it when she accidentally touches someone like my father.
"I'm not the kind of singer or writer who'll ever reach the mainstream. After years of doing this, I've sorta figured out that I don't appeal to any one audience, but I honestly believe there are all kinds of people out there who listen for a good lyric, who look for something with genuine feelings and meaning that touches something real in them. Folks like your father hearing a song for the first time -- and not necessarily one of mine -- and then saying something like that just confirms that idea to me."
While Blake Shelton's version of Gauthier's brutally honest "I Drink" is as close as she's ever gotten to the Nashville hit machine, her fourth album and first major release, Mercy Now, ended up on just about every relevant Best of 2005 list, and she was voted the AMA's New/Emerging Artist of the Year over a strong field that included local boy Hayes Carll. The Thibodaux, Louisiana, native finds a certain irony in the "New/ Emerging" label, since she's been singing since 1982 and releasing albums since 1997. It is typical of Gauthier that she deflects much of the credit for her amazing year.
"So many people have done so much to help me. Ray Wylie Hubbard, who introduced me to Gurf (producer Gurf Morlix), went out of his way to help me every way he could. Melanie Howard at Harlan Howard Publishing introduced me around Nashville and opened some doors for me. And there were wonderful people in Europe like Marianne Ebertowski spreading the word before I ever got any recognition in the U.S. Just so many kind people have helped me slowly build up over the years. People like Rusty and Teresa Andrews at the Mucky Duck, who've given me a place to play for years, gave me the time to build a little following in Houston. It's people like that who've nurtured my career, helped me along."
Her 1999 release Drag Queens and Limousines gave the first inkling of a serious talent beginning to rise, and critics began to catch on in 2002 with the release of Filth and Fire. But it was Nashville giant Harlan Howard's widow Melanie who pushed Gauthier's career up a notch. Howard brought Lost Highway head honcho Luke Lewis to a Gauthier performance at the Bluebird Cafe, and within the month Gauthier's Mercy Now had not only found a home, it had found one with deep pockets.
"Lost Highway has been wonderful for me. They never tell me, 'Wear this,' or 'Say that.' They got the record out there and pushed hard for me. Just very artist-friendly."
Labels and friends can only take an artist so far. It's Gauthier's lyrics and her matter-of-fact delivery that are her strongest assets.
"Since I signed with Harlan Howard Publishing, I've been studying his work a lot. He was just so concise and direct. It's been great to rummage through old notes and actually see how he worked a song, a little tweak here and there that meant everything to how the song finally turned out.
"I'm not a perspiration writer, I'm an inspiration writer. Some writers can just get up every day and go to work writing songs, but it's not like that for me. I admire people who do that well, but it's a slow process for me. I'm looking for something I don't understand yet or some part of me that I didn't know existed. I want to try to make sense of the world or maybe find the truth of what just happened. That kind of stuff requires a lot of thinking time because there's no quick, easy answer. I'm not what you might call a natural. I have to struggle with it."
One of Gauthier's few covers is Fred Eaglesmith's "Your Sister Cried."
"Those are the kinds of songs I'm talking about. If you ask Fred where that song came from, he'll say 'Oh, it's just about a wedding.' Who knows what the inspiration behind that song was? Whatever it was, it's one of those songs that has an almost infinite number of focal points. It can be really personal, just right up to the eye, but it can also be so far out there that it's almost universal. You don't always succeed, but those are the songs you try for. You can't do it every time, but you should try."
It's a wonder Gauthier gets anything written at all with her travel schedule. She's a huge draw in Europe, where she's been building an audience for years. The recognition she's received in 2005 has finally found her in great demand in the U.S. While she has a small country ensemble backing her on record, she's a minimalist when it comes to touring.
"I need things to be as simple as possible, where I don't have a whole bunch of responsibility and details. Right now I travel with just my guitarist Tom Jutz. That seems to be what fits my songs and my singing best anyway."
Gauthier notes that she had to learn to keep her singing simple too.
"I used to try to sing like I thought singers were supposed to sing, and it was all wrong for me. When I finally realized what I was doing and gave it up, that led to me being a lot more comfortable when I'm performing. I had to unlearn some habits, but that turned out to be the best thing for me."
While the wandering Gauthier seems to have found a home in Music City, she doesn't see herself as a Nashville person.
"My deal, it's not a thing where I'm under pressure to get something on paper, cut a demo, and go hawk it door-to-door. Melanie Howard has taught me a lot about publishing, and she makes sure I get what I'm owed for my work. But mine's not a typical Nashville deal. Melanie works my recorded stuff to film people, but that's really the only pitching we do. But in reality, I'm always just trying to write my next record."
And there's at least one old cowboy right outside Gatesville, Texas, who'll be waiting for it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.