A Southern gal, out performer Mary Gauthier has lived a life worthy of a country song: family strife, drugs, alcohol, good food and music from the soul. In 1998, her second album “Drag Queens in Limousines,” won the 1st Annual Independent Music Award for Folk/Singer-Songwriter Song. That same year she was also nominated for the Boston Music Awards’ Best New Artist of the Year and won for Best New Country Artist.
Since then, she has carved out an amazing career replete with numerous awards and had her songs recorded by several notable artists, including Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Candi Staton and, for any parrot heads out there, Jimmy Buffet.
In addition, her music has been featured in several TV shows, like the hit “Nashville,” Masterpiece Theatre’s Case Histories and two cable shows, “Banshee” on Showtime and “Injustice” on HBO.
Her latest album, “Riffle and Rosary Beads,” was nominated for Album of the Year by The Americana Music Association and might be the one that has the biggest impact yet.
PGN: You have such a lovely lilt to your voice; where are you from?
MG: I was born and raised in Louisiana, in an area that was part of the deep, deep South. I came to Nashville in 2001 to pursue music.
PGN: Tell me a little about the family.
MG: It’s a big, long damn story. I never met my birth mother. I was born in and remained at St. Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum until I was adopted when I was a year old. There was a lot of trauma experienced along the way. I left home at 15, with a drug and alcohol addiction because of the orphanage and the adoption and what I would call disordered attachment. I’ve always been gay; I’ve always been out. I got clean and sober when I was 27. So I’ve been in recovery for 28 years now. After I got clean, I started writing songs. Before that, I was in the restaurant business. I worked my way up and was the part-owner of a couple of restaurants in Boston. I walked away from all that when I was 40 to come to Nashville and become a professional songwriter. That’s the quick version — there’s all kinds of shit that went on in between. I’ve used songs and music to help me understand my own soul. Now I use that power of music to help veterans and other people who are dealing with quite a bit of trauma.
PGN: You’ve been working with soldiers to heal through music.
MG: Yes, I’ve been taking what I’ve learned about healing through music and have been able to apply it in a new way to other people’s lives who have been through some real challenges. Our veterans are really struggling, so I’m on the road with this album “Riffles and Rosary Beads,” a collection of songs cowritten with veterans.
PGN: When did you work in the restaurant business?
MG: My whole life, but in the late ’90s, I moved to Boston to go to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen, and was co-owner of several restaurants for about 15 years.
PGN: What was the best and worst part of owning a restaurant?
MG: It’s physically exhausting — you work 10-12 hours a day on your feet. The joy was being able to cook for people and show love through food, making people happy with a good meal. That was wonderful; I really liked that part. I didn’t like the responsibility of having so many employees and being in charge of other people’s lives and livelihood.
PGN: How did you make the transition to music from the restaurant business?
MG: I got arrested for drunk driving on the opening night of one of my restaurants. That finally was enough to get me to get — and stay — clean. I started writing songs in recovery, and music started taking more precedence in my life, and I decided to go into songwriting full-time. I wrote my first song at 35.
PGN: What was the first thing that made you feel like, Wow, I really have something here?
MG: I was nominated for and won the Boston Music Award for Best New Artist for my first album, so that was pretty wild. It made me feel like I should keep going — like I had a shot at this. It’s what made me realize I should get out of the restaurant business and concentrate on the music. It was very validating.
PGN: What were some of the subjects of that first album?
MG: The one I still use as a teaching tool is a song called “Goddamn HIV,” which was about a gay man living with HIV, told from his perspective. It was a country album and dealt with some issues not usually heard in country music.
PGN: And you’ve always been an out artist?
MG: I’ve always been an out everything; I was never in.
PGN: Who was your first love?
MG: Oh, I don’t know. I had so many problems with drugs and alcohol as a kid, I don’t remember — it was too messy. I nearly died from addiction. I OD’d and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. It was terrifying, but didn’t stop me — I still abused until the night I was arrested for drunk driving. That’s when I put it down for good. It was my second arrest, and that did it. It was July 13, 1990, and I’ve been sober since.
PGN: Congratulations! So, are you single or partnered?
MG: I have a girlfriend. Her name is Jaimee Harris. She’s an amazing musician. [Suzi’s note: A quick Google search reveals that Harris is poised to be the “next queen of Americana-Folk.”]
PGN: Are you going to sing together?
MG: We’re working on it. It’s a relatively new situation, but yeah, I think that’s going to happen.
PGN: So your newest album “Riffles and Rosary Beads” is pretty remarkable. Tell me a little about the project and how you got involved.
MG: I was invited to participate in a project called “Songwriting With Soldiers,” which pairs professional songwriters with soldiers and vets. They paired me with two women who had been in combat, and right away I was drawn in. As soon as you listen to a soldier’s story, if you don’t love them, there’s something wrong with your heart. Those human beings have been through so much. If you sit and listen to them, it’s impossible to explain. You have to bear witness. It’s a powerful thing to listen to a soldier’s story.
PGN: What do you think are some of the misconceptions people have about soldiers?
MG: One of the things is that we stereotype our military. I was guilty of that too. I thought they were mostly right-wing, Republican straight white dudes who were homophobic Trump voters. When I agreed to do the project, I assumed I’d be entering a very conservative right-wing environment, but I was wrong. Our military as it stands today is 55-percent Democrat. A lot of them are very young and open-minded. Many of them are just like you and me — a lot of LGBT soldiers, a lot of African-American and Hispanic soldiers, a lot of female soldiers. Our military is incredibly diverse.
PGN: The statistics about soldiers are alarming.
MG: Every day, on average, 22 veterans commit suicide. That number does not include drug overdoses or car wrecks or any of the more-inventive ways somebody might less obviously choose to die. I think this program lets them know that their stories are important and that by telling their stories honestly and openly, they are helping other people. All 11 songs on the album are cowritten with and for wounded veterans. Songwriting saved me. It’s what I think the best songs do — help articulate the ineffable, make the invisible visible, create resonance so that people don’t feel alone. So far, we have not lost a single soldier who has participated in this program.
PGN: Switching gears — a crazy concert moment?
MG: One time, playing the [Grand Ole] Opry, a guy stood up and shouted, “God Bless America” at me. I just kept going.
PGN: The last time you were really angry?
MG: I’m angry every day at the politics in our country right now. I had to wake up today to see fucking Trump demanding Sessions fire Mueller. I have to turn it off because I get so angry. You’ll notice that was my first f-bomb for the day. It enrages me, and I have to be careful how much I consume because we live in an incredibly scary time for LGBT people.
PGN: What advice would you give to yourself at 20?
MG: I’d tell my 20-year-old self to relax — it’s all going to be OK. I’d also tell her to lay off the booze and dope; it’s not gonna fix the problem. n
The Philadelphia Folk Festival is the longest continuously running outdoor musical festival of its kind in North America. The lineup of artist and workshops runs Aug. 16-19. For more information and tickets, go to www.pfs.org/philadelphia-folk-festival.