Mary Gauthier needs no introduction to regular readers and fans of all things americana, having over the last twenty five years confirmed herself as one of the finest songwriters of the genre, respected and loved as much by her peers as her ever increasing band of loyal fans. During her career she has amassed a total of nine officially released studio albums and collected numerous awards including Best Folk / Singer-Songwriter song from the Independent Music awards (2000), Best New Artist from the Boston Music Awards, Emerging Artist of the Year from the Americana Music Association (2005) and of course a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album (2019). Now with her first book, the inspiring ‘Saved By A Song’, added to her list of achievements and on the back of her most recent album, the excellent, ‘Dark Enough To See The Stars’, recently supported by a triumphant tour of the UK, I felt it was the right time to take a closer look at ten of her finest songs and revel again in the genius of her craft. Needless to say Gauthier’s canon of work meant that deciding on a final ten proved unsurprisingly difficult, having to leave out many of my favourites feeling like an act of betrayal. However a decision has been reach and for today at least here are my top ten.
Number 10: ‘I Drink’ (2005)
This song, like many of Gauthier’s is semi autobiographical and originally appeared on her second album, ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’, (1999), but she chose to return to it on, ‘Mercy Now’, (2005) with producer Gurf Morlix. Though fundamentally the same song, under Morlix’s direction the song here takes on a greater clarity and Gauthier’s singing by this time has taken on a greater confidence. The song was co-written with Crit Harmon who came to Gauthier attention through his production work on Martin Sexton’s ‘Black Sheep’, and is one of the finest examples of less is more. In her book, ‘Saved By A Song’, Gauthier demonstrates how the lyrical aspect of the song was gradually stripped away to allow the honesty that could only come from a former addict to shine through.
Number 9: ‘Got Your Six’ (2018)
In 2013 Gauthier was first invited to participate in a retreat that paired professional songwriters with wounded veterans and their families with the aim of turning their stories into songs. Her first co-write was with two female soldiers, Meghan Counihan and Britney Pfad both who had served in Iraq. The term ‘Got Your Six’ is a soldiers phrase for saying “I’ve got your back ,you’ve got mine”, meaning you’d die for them, and enters a world that conveys both the deep bonds and the survivors guilt that lies at the heart of military life on the frontline. Gauthier’s skills gently tease the heart of the song from these veterans and creates a work of art that both gives them a voice but also the listener a greater level of understanding and empathy . The resulting album ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ would go on to win several awards and earn Gauthier her first Grammy nominations.
Number 8: ‘How Could You Be Gone’ (2022)
Taken from Gauthier’s most recent album ‘Dark Enough To See The Stars’ this track sees her dealing with the loss of love ones over recent years including John Prine, Nanci Griffith, and David Olney. The grief depicted here is raw but never maudlin, capturing perfectly that feeling of numbness, confusion and loss, unable to fully comprehend the gravitas and permanence of the moment. The musical accompaniment consists of a driving acoustic guitar punctuated by a violin solo that builds in crescendo to where it almost cracks the sky apart such is the tension and fire in its delivery. As those lucky enough to catch Gauthier on her recent tour can attest to this song has already become a highlight of her shows.
Number 7: ‘Christmas In Paradise’ (2002)
Taken from Gauthier third album ‘Filth and Fire’ (2002) this seasonal offering has long become a fan favourite and one of the few festive tunes that comfortably transcends the limitations of the Christmas period. Set in Florida’s Key West where Gauthier would often spend the winter months escaping the cold of the north it turns the spotlight on the homeless street dwellers during the period of excess and materialism. Typical of her writing there is no pity or judgement on offer here for the listener but rather a sense of envy and desire for the simpler generosity and the true spirit of the season shared between the characters in the song.
Number 6: ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’ (1999)
The title track to Gauthier’s second album was written after a gig in NYC where only two close friend turned up for the show. In an attempt to lift Gauthier’s spirits the two friends took her to a Diner in Time Square where outside taxi’s and limousines congregated waiting for their next fare whilst inside the local drag queens placed their takeaway orders. Gauthier would take this image and turn it into an autobiographical story song about coming of age as a gay kid that has become an outsider’s anthem. The song would go on to win Gauthier’s first music award for best country song at the GLAMA Awards 1999.
Number 5: ‘Bullet Holes In The Sky’ (2018)
The second track on this list from the Grammy nominated album ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ and the one that makes the deepest incision cutting through all the emotional barricades, leaving the listener with no hiding place from the precision of the lyrical artillery. A song that never pulls it punches, nor apologies for its brutal honesty as it accentuates the distance between the returning soldier and the flag waving public so devoid of true understanding. On first hearing this song BBC Radio presenter Bob Harris admitted to being reduced to tears, in truth we probably all were.
Number 4: ‘Blood Is Blood’ (2010)
This track is taken from ‘The Foundling’ (2010) a concept album that explores in a series of songs Gauthier’s deepest inner world, to be rejected at birth and left for adoption, and is the centrepiece of the album’s song cycle. Gauthier described this song as probably the angriest and most angst-ridden song she’s ever written telling the story of the existential hole left inside an adoptee, dealing with the trauma and denial but also the courage, therapy and eventual healing. Supported in the writing by long time collaborator Harmon, Gauthier here manages to find the strength to ask the questions she’d previously dare not ask and in turn deliver to the listener a song that truly encapsulates her story.
Number 3: ‘The Last Of The Hobo Kings’ (2007)
Written whilst in Amsterdam during November 2006 at the end of a long European tour and inspired by a headlined obituary in the International Herald Tribune newspaper the song tells the story of Maury Graham a folk hero and legendary figure in the hobo community. Graham or Steam Train Maury Graham as he was better known was the Grand Patriarch of the Hobo Nation, a people who back during the early part of the twentieth century saw themselves as pioneers, hopping trains as they navigated their way around the states of the U.S. preferring to work for their food wherever their travelling took them. After a few days research Gauthier emerged with a song befitting such a legend becoming one of her most favourite songs she’s ever written and would appear on the following years album ‘Between Daylight And Dark’.
Number 2: ‘Our Lady Of The Shooting Stars’ (1999)
First appearing on the album ‘Drag Queens In Limousines’ and written after another failed gig, this time on Martha’s Vineyard the title itself comes from a line in Sue Monk’s book ‘The Secret Life Of Bees’. Taking the title as a starting point Gauthier creates the most staggering piece of poetry that immediately conjures up the great romantic poets of the past such as Blake, Keats and Byron, weaving a tapestry with such depth of meaning and mystery that it is at the same time both indecipherable and yet requiring no explanation. Unlike much of her other work where the emphasis is on less is more, here there is almost a subconscious lyrical stream that just flows without source or destination. In truth this is not just a great song, it is one of the finest examples of poetry for the current times.
Number 1: ‘Mercy Now’ (2005)
Written after a final visit to see her father who had previously been injured in a serious car accident which led to small strokes of the brain leaving him with Alzheimer’s like symptoms, Gauthier found the parent child roles reversed and an urgent need to protect. Picking through a simple chord progression on the guitar she mumbled nonsense words until the song gradually emerged as a homage to both her father and her brother. The simplicity in the structure of this composition draws the listener closer and its sparseness has encouraged many cover versions including Boy George of which Gauthier is most proud. However what truly marks this song out as a modern day classic and to which no cover version can match is in the empathy and sagacity with which Gauthier embellishes ever syllable, and every breath. There is nothing false, nor forced, just the honesty and sincerity that she brings to all her work. A true master of her craft.