Enough about me

Times Staff Writer

For a long time, Mary Gauthier had a lot of trouble, and very little mystery. Through four albums, she laid every piece of her life on the table in forlorn, unvarnished, autobiographical song, like a no-luck gambler who’s come to hate her own money at the end of the night.

There was the mother she never knew; the jocks and pompom girls who made her an outcast as a kid; the time she ran away from home and found herself a new family of drag queens and pot dealers who read Kerouac. It was all there for the world to hear -- espe- cially her long, tortured romance with liquor, which she famously reduced to an inescapable dictum:

Fish swim. Birds fly. I drink.

Then, to her great surprise, people loved her.

Gauthier’s 2005 album, “Mercy Now,” her first for a major label, made her a jewel of Americana and an authenticated Nashville artist. But when she sat down to do it again, as was expected of her, there was a problem: The well was running dry.

“I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ ” she said on a recent afternoon, a few hours before she took the stage at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, one of the 175-odd shows she expects to play in the coming year. “I wanted it to be bigger than me. I was sick of me.”

That fall, Hurricane Katrina struck her native state -- “Mama Louisiana,” as she has dubbed it in song. She spent days on the phone trying in vain to get her adoptive father rescued from a nursing home on the coast. He survived, but many of her friends lost everything to the storm. The government’s failure in New Orleans, Gauthier (pronounced go-SHAY) found, was colossal and outrageous -- and more compelling than any of her own troubles had ever been.


She picked up her guitar and wrote “Can’t Find the Way,” a song about storm victims who no longer recognize their own streets, and remain “scattered forth like seeds, at the mercy of the wind.” The song is the second track on her new album, “Between Daylight and Dark,” and part of a batch of songs that are about a great many things, but not about Mary.

It’s a significant leap, one that could nudge Gauthier closer to what she contends is songwriting nirvana: producing music that will live longer than she does, music written by elites who she calls “the word people” -- Dylan, Leonard Cohen and the like.

It was, she said, a journey of necessity.

“At first, you write what you know,” she said. “And then you run out. And the navel-gazing becomes -- what would be the word? -- redundant. You either enlarge, or you fade away. But I couldn’t have started at universal. I had to write through the ‘me’ to get to the ‘we.’ ”

If it took a while, that’s because there was a lot of the “me” to unpack.

A rough beginning

Gauthier was born in New Orleans but was adopted at 9 months by a family in Baton Rouge. She describes her childhood home as bleak and broken -- five isolated people, including her two siblings, who barely knew each other and had little in common. Her father was a heavy drinker, and Gauthier stole some of his liquor for the first time when she was 13.

“Like gasoline on a fire,” she said with a wicked smile.

In the coming years, she would steal a car, drop out of high school, go to rehab -- twice, both times to no avail -- and get kicked out of two halfway houses. Asked what her drug of choice was, she said: “I wasn’t choosy.” She spent her 18th birthday in jail after she was caught stealing a bottle of pills, and she soon left home for good.

“As I get older my perspective changes,” she said. “I used to say I was a rebel and that I was incorrigible. I wore it with pride, like some female James Dean thing. But I don’t think it was true. I just desperately needed a family that loved me. I was lonely and looking for acceptance. I had to look elsewhere.”

For a time, she found her tribe on the streets of Baton Rouge, where she took classes at Louisiana State University. But she kept drinking and getting high, and she was exhausted.

Seeking a fresh start, she moved to Boston, where she enrolled in culinary school and eventually opened a Cajun restaurant, Dixie Kitchen, in Boston’s Back Bay. The night the restaurant opened -- July 13, 1990 -- she was arrested for drunk driving. She’s been sober ever since.

The restaurant was a success, and Gauthier, though she was working hard, found herself with a lot of free time.

“I didn’t realize how time-consuming it was to be an alcoholic,” she said. “So I started writing songs.”

She began performing at open-mike nights around Boston, particularly at Club Passim, a celebrated folk and acoustic training ground near Harvard Square. She produced two albums chock full of the kinds of dreary songs that have led her friends to nickname her “Mary McDoom” and “The Awfulizer.” Critics adored them. Five years ago she took the plunge, selling her stake in the restaurant to move to Nashville.

Finding a niche

She was 40, a dinosaur by the standards of the record industry. And yet, she believes that good music succeeds on its merits -- because it happened to her. Stodgy Nashville, it turned out, was ready to overlook her age, the fact that she is gay, the fact that she is not a tidy fit in one narrow genre of music.

“Nashville knows one thing: songs,” Gauthier said. “If the songs move them, then the powers that be will let you in. The songs transcended all of the things that were standing in the way.”

Soon, Lost Highway Records, a Universal Music subsidiary, came calling. The label has often been home to artists lumped into “Americana,” a nebulous category of misfits and acquired tastes, many of whom seem to have worn cowboy hats at one time or another: Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams.

The first result was “Mercy Now,” with a title track that became arguably her most recognized and acclaimed song.

It was while she was writing that song -- in a hotel room in Canso, Nova Scotia, after performing at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival -- that her universe began to expand.

“Mercy Now” is a soft, affecting song, a plea for mercy for people she loved, people who were in trouble.

She wrote the first verse for her father, who was sick, and has since passed away:

His work is almost over;

It won’t be long and he won’t be around;

I love my father, and he could use some mercy now

She wrote the second verse for her brother, another troubled soul who, she said, remains in prison today on a drug conviction.

“And then something locked in,” she said. “It was like a camera was on a dolly, and panning out behind me. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

She dedicated the song’s third verse to “my church and my country,” then went for broke with the fourth:

Every living thing could use a little mercy now;

Only the hand of grace can end the race

Towards another mushroom cloud;

People in power, well, they’ll do anything to keep their crown.

“It was magical,” she said. “That’s where things took a turn.”

Gauthier’s peers immediately took note.

Joe Henry, the singer and songwriter who produced her latest album in the basement of his South Pasadena home, said he was reminded of the notation that folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote on the manuscript of “God Blessed America,” which eventually became his iconic song “This Land Is Your Land.”

Guthrie wrote: “All you can write is what you see.”

“I used to think that was very limiting. But I’ve come to realize that there are many ways to ‘see,’ ” Henry said. “What he meant was that you have to use your authentic experience in whatever you’re writing. All of us have two fundamental choices: You can write about your inner life, which is a very finite space; or you can write about everything else. Mary is doing that. It’s a huge step forward.”

For “Between Daylight and Dark,” Gauthier tapped into that well for songs that feature intricate, complex characters, some of whom seem to come straight out of “The Canterbury Tales.”

There is “Last of the Hobo Kings,” based on the life of a man named Steam Train Maury, who died in 2006 after being crowned king five times at the National Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. In it, Steam Train offers an innovative yardstick for measuring the health of the economy:

He knew how his nation was doing

By the length of a sidewalk cigarette butt.

In “Thanksgiving,” Gauthier created her favorite character on the album -- an old woman who goes to a Louisiana state prison to visit her grandchild on Thanksgiving and, hands trembling, abides the guards who frisk her “from her head to her toes.”

“They’re trying to degrade her, on Thanksgiving, and she is keeping her dignity,” Gauthier said. “She is showing us all what love is.”

Gauthier stared at the table in front of her for a moment and shook her head. She wasn’t so much admiring her own work as marveling at the very notion of imagination.

“I just . . . I don’t know where that came from,” she said. “I’m still not sure how this works.”