Classic Americana Albums: Mary Gauthier “Filth and Fire”

Signature Sounds 2002

The opening lines of ‘Walk Through the Fire’ the first track on this 2002 album perfectly sum up its feel and tone ‘’In the darkness, it finds me, the terrible fire. It doesn’t matter how I pray’’. Sung slowly and deliberately in a deep southern drawl, the atmosphere of torment and pain is obvious right from the beginning.

It is a cinematic, unsentimental, sometimes bleak journey that Gauthier takes you on, but it is one that you want to revisit again and again. Laying bare so many feelings such as sadness, loss, torment and also occasionally hope, but it never really seems to reach any final conclusions.

In interviews at the time, she touched on this ‘’There is no resolution. The way that I write is the way that it is, and I don’t see any resolution’’. ‘’I look at myself as a story writer. That’s Country music’’.

This was her third album taking two years to write and produced by Gurf Morlix who also played several instruments, including a wonderful slide guitar on ‘After You Gone’. Easily the track with the most country feel. Interestingly, Ian McLagan of the Faces played B-3 Organ on a number of tracks.

The cinematic elements are highlighted particularly well in ‘Camelot Motel’ and ‘Christmas in Paradise’. You can imagine both as short films. Gauthier finds herself in the very seedy downbeat ‘Camelot Motel’ surrounded by ”cheaters, liars, outlaws and fallen angels”. In every room there is a story. From the Bonnie and Clyde characters, who are so nervous they keep picking up a gun at every sound having presumably recently carried out a robbery, to various sexual encounters all of which seem to be short-lived and meaningless. All sorts of marginal life are to be found, but where the protagonists ‘‘need to hold onto each other as the morning light is hell’. It is such a powerful, beautifully observed piece of writing which feels as if you are watching it all unfold in black and white getting a snapshot of America’s more sordid underbelly. It is however interesting that we find out about the other residents but nothing about her and why she is there.

Christmas In Paradise’ finds her sleeping under the stars with her friend Davey. These are two people who again live on the edge of society making a meagre living from selling back golf balls to the club next door which they have picked up and cleaned. Far from being bleak, the impression given is that they are content with their lot. Looking forward to Christmas dinner over at the church of light after which they listen to Christmas songs and get high. Davey then shouts ‘’Merry Christmas yall’’ to the cars that drive by. The arrangement which includes ‘Jingle Bells’ on steel drums is so laid-back and deft that it leaves the listener with a warm glow of hope despite their reduced circumstances.

Goodbye’ is a very raw autobiographical song about her early life ‘Born the bastard child in New Orleans to a woman I’ve never seen’’. It is not an easy listen, given the subject matter but gives a huge insight into what fashioned her drive and wanderlust, summed up by the line ‘Goodbye could be my family name’. It is re-visited on a later album ‘The Foundling’ which further explores this difficult aspect of her life.

She classes her music as ‘American roots’. A concise description as it digs deep into the country’s psyche in the same way as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and John Prine did before her. There is however one obvious difference. ‘’Musicians have a need to roam, the difference between them and me is they are men’’ Gauthier observed at the time.

Gauthier has gone on to have a long very distinguished career from someone who famously stole a car at 15 to ‘get away’ to becoming one of the most respected singer-songwriters in the world. She has always stayed true to her beliefs and values. Brutally honest, sometimes unglamorous, but never afraid to show her true emotions no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

This is an album that shows that out of adversity and restlessness comes great art and music. Serious music for serious listeners. The real deal.

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A great appreciation Rick of one of Americana’s finest artists. Was lucky enough to see her a couple of months ago when she toured UK. Her book “Saved by a Song” which came out a couple of years ago is a fascinating and illuminating insight into her songwriting process and what drives her.

Thanks Richard. Such an inspirational artist on so many levels. Glad you enjoyed it.