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A Songwriter’s Tale and Lyrical Guidance Stretch from Deep Trauma to Recovery

Mary Gauthier (© Laura E. Partain)

You might rightly conclude that Mary Gauthier hit rock bottom at 17, when she was thrown out of a Salina, Kansas, halfway house for pilfering a bottle of pills.

But, no, rock bottom came nearly a decade later, with her face on the floor of a Boston jail cell. She’d been arrested while driving drunk. This was after celebrating the opening of her second restaurant serving down-home Cajun food in that northern bastion of taste and snobbery.

In the moment, as the cold concrete met her hungover body, she vowed never to drink again. Yeah, sure, we’ve heard that before. But, indeed, Gauthier began a personal transformation that led her cleaned-up self, over the next three decades, to become a beloved singer-songwriter.

I began to pick up on Gauthier’s life story and her aching finesse with a song by way of the annual music industry gathering called Folk Alliance. The songs she sang in that intimate arena always seemed to make a stir, to bring a tear. Her style is musically simple — a strummed guitar, a husky, twangy voice — made humanly complex and painfully compelling by the hard-won honesty of her lyrics.

Now, in her new book, “Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting” (St. Martin’s Essentials), Gauthier has braided a confessional memoir of recovery and redemption around a short course in creative writing. It’s an unusual but powerful combination. Her recurring message is that without digging down to the truth of one’s emotional traumas, real art will always remain elusive.

Her journey is recognizable: Adopted shortly after birth in New Orleans. Reared in a home that became increasingly broken, upended by drink and emotional abuse. Youthful bad behavior made more complex by her coming out as lesbian. There was drink and more drink, drugs, and heroin addiction. Yet she managed to survive through most of it, eventually becoming a chef and restaurateur in Boston.

One is only left to surmise the sorts of kitchen-confidential raunchiness that Gauthier must have presided over. More important is that after her humiliation in the drunk tank at 28, she kept her word to herself on sobriety. Within a few years she began writing songs and walked away from the restaurant business and down a new creative path.

St. Martin’s Essentials

Gauthier recounts her often embarrassing beginnings at open mic nights. But, driven to succeed, her perseverance eventually paid off.

One essential lesson did come from her kitchen. She uses the analogy of making a demi-glace. It takes long stovetop hours to reduce 20 gallons of liquid to a small bucket of rich, brown sauce. That’s how songwriting works, she says. You’ve got to marinate your lyrics, gauge the truth of their emotional content, and eliminate every unnecessary word.

This is not hit-factory wisdom about creating insincere hooks and bubbly pop anthems. Hers is songwriting guidance for those who understand that personal truths revealed in simply stated words can spark like synapses that connect a singer to a listener’s heart.

To guide the hopeful songwriter through the process, she introduces each chapter with the lyrics of 13 songs, mostly hers, written solo or with a co-writer. But she also shows what she learned from such tough-love lyrics as John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and John Lennon’s pertinent, primal-scream anthem “Mother.”

Gauthier’s first album for a major label, “Mercy Now,” came out in 2005 and presented a dark but wholly accessible vision. Its title song issues a kind of prayer call, evoking the troubles of Gauthier’s adoptive father and brother and extending toward a wider view of the disturbing world.

The more she dug into the hard stuff, the more she realized she had her own continuing problems, best described perhaps as an inability to recognize what real love meant in her life. Obsessiveness and self-destructive behavior in serial relationships led her to therapy and, it seems, to another kind of recovery.

A few years ago, Gauthier received deserving acclaim for her work in a program that matched songwriters with armed forces veterans and their spouses, most of whom were working their way through post-traumatic stress disorder. Her account of reaching into one veteran’s heart and teasing out the story he had no intention of voicing is triumphant. (The resulting songs can be found on the album “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” an inspiring testament to honest reflection and recovery.)

Like most every other musician, Gauthier was sidelined last year by the pandemic and only recently began to tour again. With her new memoir and her kit bag of emotional gut punches, Gauthier has come to exemplify what it means to be a troubadour on a mission of healing.

CategoriesLiterary
Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a forthcoming biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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