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From Thibodaux to Boston
Mary Gauthier at Rosendale Cafe Friday, April 19, 2002

Story by Gary Alexander
Photos by Ray G. Ring IV

  Related Links:     Mary Gauthier's Website
  Rosendale Cafe  

The path of the rapidly rising musician who will entertain at Rosendale Cafe Friday night has been filled with almost as many twists, turns and detours as a Congressional investigation.

Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-shay) first saw the light of day through the Spanish moss along the banks of the Bayou Lafourche in Thibodaux (pronounced Tib-a-do), Louisiana. Growing up in what the town's Chamber of Commerce describes as a "hard-working, fun-loving culture" as part of a Nixon-Republican family, presented Mary with the first few squiggles in the highway of life.

Southwest of New Orleans and Southeast of Baton Rouge, Thibodaux's carnival in Mardi Gras season urges natives to "Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez" Cajun style. Their "rubber duck race" sounds as knee-slapping a time as an Ulster County "cow-chip toss." But, 43 years before Rosendale was founded in 1844 (as a center which supplied half of all the cement used in the U.S. through the Delaware and Hudson canals), Thibodaux was established amidst French and Spanish colonists from New Orleans, refugees from the French Revolution and the Arcadian expulsion from Nova Scotia.

This pronounced cultural heritage congealed into a "Cajun style" which features distinctly flavored music and cuisine in festivities which charmingly divide the year with periods of celebration. Although Gauthier's music is styled quite apart from the lusty Cajun traditions of her homeland- call it alternative folk-country, if you must- we have cause to suspect that the very spirit of music infiltrated her youth as deeply as aromas from the local tables.

"Music? This whole thing is mysterious, to be honest with you," Gauthier said on her cellphone from a Cuban cafe in Key West. "I've always been a big music fan and I've always been drawn more to words than anything else."

If Gauthier seems a bit puzzled as to how her ship sailed into musical waters, it may be that song was such an intrinsic part of her early environment that it was most noticeable when it wasn't there. She wasn't thinking of becoming a musician, she says today, but then why did she so often have a guitar with her as she roamed about?

"I always lugged a guitar around; more as a prop, though," Gauthier responded. "I never really played it until I quit drinking. I could play like 3 or 4 chords. I liked the old Neil Young songs and stuff like that but I never started to learn how to really play until much later in life. Not till I was around 35."

Hold on, now. Quit drinking? We've missed a few of those road loops and detours. Let's turn back the page to that bayou view...

Picture a town in the wetlands which features a state university named after a Confederate colonel, a national park and a city center named after Jean Lafite- that legendary scamp who turned the Battle of New Orleans in Andrew Jackson's favor with his "merry men" and plotted the rescue of Napoleon from St. Helena. To judge by the city's website, it seems unlikely that most of the locals are aware of all the intricacies of their historical heritage. It notes vaguely, for instance, that "Indian tribes originally inhibited (sic) the area currently known as Thibodaux as early as 1686" and tells us that Iberville referred to them as "river people" without providing a clue as to who Iberville might have been. [The misspelling of "inhabited" may be due to the local accent. We are also told about eight recreational parks and a "gulf course."]

But, if they happen to be a little hazy on the historical details of their region, the good folks of Thibodaux certainly feel the influence of the culture it handed down as it saturates their day-to-day life. If not on today's homogenized radio, they can hear it in their clubs, on back porches, at their November festival, or a parade in May which dates back to 1858. It's in the air like the drift of wind across the sugar cane.

Against this Creole backdrop, in a town that boasts a number of "Louisiana's Cleanest City" awards, "a quality hospital," a "progressive police department" and daily "swamp tours," Mary tried to balance an outgoing, boyish personality with a conservative French-Italian home. The opening track on her first album tells of a girl who broke her wrist trying to ramp-jump like Evel Knievel: "When I was a kid I was a hard-headed, pigtailed tomboy/I make mama crazy cause I won't wear dresses and bows/I played with boys, and I liked tackle football/I shot snakes with my brother down at the fishing hole..."

Before long the temperament of a misfit saw her slipping a teenage body through a window to go off partying with friends. By 15, she had stolen her mother's car and left home and high school behind. Gauthier turned 16 in a Baton Rouge detox center and spent another birthday, two years later, in a cell in Kansas City. When her road finally straightened out in 1990 and she logged some study of philosophy at Louisiana State University and culinary arts at a school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her empathy for social misfits and underdogs lingered on in her music.

"I think what happened is that I started out young with a lot of problems," Gauthier reflected. "I think that drinking and the drugs got in the way of me becoming a writer. So, I ended up in the restaurant business, where I could function and still continue to drink. A couple of years after I put down all mind-altering chemicals, I started becoming a writer. I think I probably would have been a writer all along if didn't have the chemical problem, but it held me back. I just wasn't able to function that way...

Dixie Chicken
"It's strange. I could function in a business world but not in an artistic one because with many people it's the other way around...I think my study of philosophy was the beginning of sort of a spiritual search and, certainly, my music is a continuation of that...As you know, I don't really write pop songs. I'm on a search and I have no idea of what I'm looking for, but there's a magic to putting words together that gives me peace and provides sort of a connection to a mystery that I don't understand."

When Gauthier found herself "whirling around" in the South with a desire to "try something entirely different," she headed for New England, thinking you can't get much more different than Baton Rouge and Boston. Her decision to open a restaurant, Dixie Kitchen (after which she named her first CD), was another turning point in the road.

The style of restaurant was obvious.

"My family is Italian but even Italians down there consider themselves Cajun," Gauthier explained. "So they cook spaghetti and meatballs one night and gumbo the next. That's just the way it is down there. Now, if you're going to open a restaurant, you need to pull from something you know. I understand Louisiana and Cajun food. I know the history of the cuisine, so it was just natural for me to do it that way."

The next turn in the road, music, Mary sees as a "destiny thing."

Drag Queens in Limosines
"I didn't set out to get serious about it. It happened to me," she recalled. "I was doing well in the restaurant business. I had insurance. My car was paid for and my car insurance was paid for. I had bought my first piece of property. In fact, the restaurant was doing well enough to have my partners seriously push me to open another one and, in spite of all that, I kept wanting to write. Ultimately, the writing pulled me away from the restaurant. It seemed to happen all on its own."

The Dixie Kitchen album was a solid start, introducing Gauthier to a Boston-area acoustic circuit outside of the open mike nights she had broken in on, but its follow-up Drag Queens in Limousines, rattled windows far beyond the Northeast region. As it gathered rave reviews, nominations and awards (including Independent Artist of the Year), Mary found herself entertaining at clubs and festivals coast-to-coast alongside some of the most celebrated names in the art. When it was released in Europe by Munich Records last year, Gauthier followed with four European tours.

Some reviewers, like one in The Boston Globe, saw her as "a female version of John Prine" and one can find some justification for that in the title track and the laid back and friendly coziness of her southern accent. Here, she sings fondly of subculture denizens who took in a runaway and afforded her sanctuary upon their couch; "dreamers with big dreams, poets and AWOL marines, actors and bar flies" and, of course, "drunks that philosophize."

On one of the more passionate tracks we find "mercy in the sky" for Karla Faye Tucker, a woman executed in Texas a few years ago after 15 years on death row. On another we revisit the ghost of a drinker staring at the wall and sipping her life away just for something to do. On "Lifetime," we find time slipping through our fingers- even without the numbness of alcohol- in "no time at all," as mama says on the phone; life moves so fast, it's hard to see. Here we have gently laced traces of a Cajun feel behind the words from down home, just a whiff on the breeze as stories return along the wire of someone's jar of time emptied by AIDS or cancer as loved ones look on. It is Time as a hand which cups us all, squeezing...

Sharing the Songwriter's stage with Greg Brown at Winterhawk 2001

"I love the process," Mary says of her songwriting. "It's more meaningful to me than making money, I guess, or I wouldn't have left the restaurant. I enjoy the process immensely. In fact, that's why I'm down here in Key West. Besides fishing and smoking cigars, I'm writing the next record."

With her third album, Filth & Fire, in the can and set for a European release in April as she ponders her U.S. options, Gauthier is already casting her lines for the next one. She explains that a title is usually the first part of a song which occurs to her.

"Once a title comes to me, I try to write that song," she said, elaborating that today she was helping out on a friend's charter boat, fishing as much for song ideas as for sea bass. "A title is that little piece of string that I pull that leads me to the song. If I have a title, I try to write it. When I don't have any, I like to come down here and spend time bumming around. Right now, I'm eating a $3 breakfast because it's the cheapest in town, drinking a cafe con leche and just kind of floatin'...That state of mind works great for coming up with song ideas- puts me in a peaceful place where I can relax and just be a writer. In that way, I'm sort of inducing it and it's a very nice way to live, too. I did the restaurant routine for ten years. I don't want to do that again. This is more interesting to me now."

Coping with time creatively, dancing with the muse, also takes a developed sense of balance. A path through the world of music is filled with unexpected twists and unpredictable changes of progression. The only true consistency artists can anticipate is their own and that must be evolved and nurtured. A performance in a sold-out arena can be followed the very next night with a booking in a small club with no guarantee.

"There's an awful lot of surprises," Gauthier concedes. "Every day is completely different than the one before...I was used to getting up a six in the morning, going to the restaurant, working 10, 12 hours and going home. There was a routine and predictability about it. In the music business, you just don't know what's next. You don't know where you're going to be appreciated or where you're going to be ignored and you're doing the same thing. You're the same person in both places. There's just a completely unpredictable path out there for an artist and something about that is incredibly challenging to me. You have to find peace in uncertainty. That's the biggest thing I didn't realize I'd be getting myself into...You have to be able to be centered in the middle of complete and profound uncertainty."

One certainty to start with is that when Mary Gauthier played at the Rosendale Cafe on a memorable evening in the Fall of 2000, we were all on our feet applauding at the end and everyone who had come left with a profound certainty about her talents.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on April 19, 2002

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