Faith Through Fire 

Unflinching singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier releases luminous new album

Unflinching singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier releases luminous new album

Mary Gauthier

Mercy Now (Lost Highway)

The road to mercy can be long and rough, but Mary Gauthier's fourth album suggests she's survived that journey intact. Autobiographical as ever, the singer-songwriter's new Mercy Now, which came out Tuesday, dwells less on desperation and dissipation; at age 43, she's as dark and sardonic as ever, but there's more wisdom and less wildness in her tales.

The pain and despair remain, but there's more light now. Gauthier's songs no longer center on addicts and abusers; they are set less in rented rooms or on street corners. The "cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels" in the chorus of "Camelot Motel," from 2001's amazing Filth & Fire, have mostly been replaced by lost lovers and nights spent in reflection instead of revelry. Even a song set in a Mardi Gras parade that namechecks Crescent City iconography slips into the mystic. Most tellingly, the title song wishes mercy not only on disavowed family members—an ongoing theme for Gauthier, an orphan who was given away at birth—but also on her country, her religion and, eventually, all humankind. Of course, Gauthier considers them all hell-bent, even as she hopes for intervention.

With Mercy Now, Gauthier also moves to a major label, Nashville-based Lost Highway Records, but her voice and vision haven't been polished for the marketplace. She remains as she was, gritty and thorny and washed in grace. As a songwriter, Gauthier has always gone for maximum lyrical impact. No breezing tunes for her. A native of Thibodeaux, La., her songs are as one with her personal history as those of Billy Joe Shaver or Steve Earle. If she sings of drag queens, drunks, druggies or the homeless, it's because she's intimately familiar with them.

As a blossoming gay teenager living in the fundamentalist home of an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother, Gauthier couldn't have been more alienated. She stole the family car at 15 and, again, at 16. She moved in with six transvestites and was an addict by the age of 17, when she was arrested while working at a car wash for stealing pills from a customer's glove box. On her 18th birthday, a jailhouse preacher led her in a rendition of "Amazing Grace."

More arrests followed. She studied philosophy for five years at LSU, before dropping out when her addictions flared. By the late '80s, she worked in a café in Boston, which led to culinary school—and an arrest for DUI on the night she opened the city's first Cajun restaurant. She appeased frightened investors by entering rehab in 1990 and has been sober ever since.

The restaurant proved successful, but increasingly, Gauthier heard a different calling. At age 35, she wrote her first song and, within a year, released an album under her own auspices, its title, Dixie Kitchen, the same as the name of her restaurant. The record earned Gauthier a nomination at the Boston Music Awards, but it was with 1999's Drag Queens in Limousines that she found her voice. The album's stories drew on everything she'd experienced, turning all those wretched and blessed memories into hard-won stories that transcend their circumstances because of the beauty of her phrases and the humanity of her observations.

Gauthier's style has never had anything to do with the stereotypes that dog female singers with acoustic guitars. If she can be compared to another woman in music, it would be Patti Smith—that is, if Smith had come of age idolizing Guy Clark and Fred Eaglesmith instead of Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger. Gauthier, however, is more concise and less ostentatious than Smith. Her lyrics come across as if they have been ruthlessly edited and then set to spare melodies and prairie blues motifs.

Now a resident of Nashville, Gauthier hit her stride at the turn of the century when she hooked up with Austin producer Gurf Morlix, a guitarist who's worked with Lucinda Williams, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Slaid Cleaves. Gauthier already had her basic style, a hoarse and snake-bitten sound that was unflinching, "unpretty" and glorious. As fleshed out on Mercy Now, this sound is more haunted yet more hallowed than ever. Gauthier and Morlix build each song on a repeating acoustic guitar line, and then add slide guitar, harmonica, idiosyncratic percussion and low-moaning voices. Gauthier sings with husky nuance, enunciating clearly and solemnly, yet with just enough of a musical lilt to bring her melodies to life.

It's telling that the few covers on Gauthier's albums are songs that were written by men. The new album includes a previously unrecorded gem by Harlan Howard, "Just Say She's a Rhymer," as well as Eaglesmith's "Your Sister Cried," in which Gauthier reveals what an expressive singer she's become. This is especially apparent when she stretches out the vowels at the end of the line "I reached over and turned the radio way down low," investing the lyric with more force by way of interpretation.

But, as always, it's her songs that kill—and uplift. Gauthier revives "I Drink," a keeper from her second album, but it's the title song and the equally monastic "Prayer Without Words" that illustrate how her lyrics are shifting toward a more hopeful form of introspection. The latter is still a song about hardship—in this case, about a problem child running away. "On a stormy suitcase Sunday I awakened to the scream of the birds / They held their high notes and offered prayer without words," Gauthier sings in the opening stanza. The difference is that this time, she believes the road could lead to somewhere better.

Three others—"Falling Out of Love," "Empty Spaces" and "Drop in a Bucket"—also depart from her past work by dealing with the aftermath of a relationship that's finished but not forgotten. "Even though I asked you to go / I miss you every day," Gauthier sings, knowing that just because a love affair is over doesn't make it easy to let go. Mercy Now doesn't top Filth & Fire, but it equals it while moving away from the grime and further into grace.

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