Mary Gauthier digs deeply for a song. She never fears exposing the darker places in the human soul.
“My natural instinct is to go deep,” the Nashville-based singer-songwriter from Baton Rouge said. “My heroes go deep. Going deep is my job.”
The honest songs Gauthier writes—such as “I Drink,” “Mercy Now” and “Christmas in Paradise”—are not the province of mainstream country radio. Even so, stars Blake Shelton, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Jimmy Buffett have recorded her songs.
“I’m not interested in escapism,” Gauthier said. “I want to go to where the hurt is.”
Which makes Gauthier the ideal songwriter for SongwritingWith:Soldiers. Founded in 2012 by Austin singer-songwriter Darden Smith, the SongwritingWith:Soldiers program pairs songwriters with military veterans and their spouses. During two-day songwriting retreats, the professional writers help veterans and their spouses express their experiences in song.
Gauthier’s tenth album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, features 11 of her SongwritingWith:Soldiers collaborations.
Darrell Scott, a Nashville singer-songwriter peer of Gauthier’s who participated in the program’s early retreats, encouraged her to join a SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat. Gauthier, despite her customary fearlessness, initially found the prospect of doing so intimidating. “I thought Darrell had lost his mind,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone who’d served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t feel qualified.”
Less than one-half of one percent of the nation’s population are active military personnel. Most Americans, like Gauthier five years ago, don’t know a member of the military or the challenges that military and former military personnel and their families face.
In 2013, Gauthier, despite feeling unworthy, participated in her first SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat. The diversity among vets and their spouses surprised her.
“There’s a real cross-section in the service now,” she said. “And I realized that the women have incredible stories to tell. Especially that first generation of women who served in combat.”
Gauthier’s fears about the SongwritingWith:Soldiers program quickly faded. “As soon as I started working with them, I realized, ‘Oh, my God. I love this.’ And I feel like everything I’ve ever done as a songwriter led me to this. This is so incredible. And right away I realized I wanted to do more of these retreats. It’s an important story for me to tell and it’s a privilege to tell it.”
Gauthier is one of more than a dozen songwriters, including Beth Nielsen Chapman, Marshall Crenshaw and Radney Foster, who’ve attended SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreats throughout the United States. She’s written 55 songs at the retreats.
For Rifles & Rosary Beads, Gauthier divided the songs evenly between male and female veterans. “We’ve had women in combat since 2005,” she said. “That’s a big story that hasn’t been told yet.”
During her early days in Nashville, Gauthier attempted the common Music City practice of scheduling songwriting sessions with professional tunesmiths. It didn’t work for her.
“I realized that I can’t do the song mill thing,” she explained. “I’m not interested in writing fast. I’m not interested in writing hits. And I don’t know how to write that way. I’m not where the money is, but I’m okay with that. An artist’s career suits me.”
Although SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreats are, technically, songwriting appointments, Gauthier’s writing sessions with veterans are quite unlike appointments with professional tunesmiths. “Because the veterans aren’t songwriters,” she said. “They’re human beings who were put into situations where they had quickly figured out how to survive.”
At retreats, Gauthier said, “they tell me what happened and I get it into the song. I want to make the invisible visible. That’s what a great song does.”
As searing and sad as the Rifles & Rosary Beads songs can be, the pain they express makes them relevant. “Often, it’s the sad songs that bring hope,” Gauthier said. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah songs don’t do that. It’s the sad songs that make you feel better.”
Gauthier arrived at songwriting relatively late in life. She wrote her first song at 35. She was living in Boston at the time, running her popular Cajun-Creole restaurant, the Dixie Kitchen. Because the restaurant was near the Berklee College of Music, many of Gauthier’s customers and employees were Berklee students. A Dixie Kitchen waitress who was a singer-songwriter invited Gauthier to an open mike night where the waitress-musician was performing. Gauthier’s first open mike experience got her hooked on open mikes and songwriting.
Following years of struggles with drugs and alcohol, Gauthier made songwriting her refuge. “After I got sober, I could articulate things in a way that I could have never done when I was still using,” she said. “Music started coming to me.”
In 1997, Gauthier released her album debut, Dixie Kitchen. In a city stocked with far more experienced folk singers and songwriters than she, the album earned a Boston Music Awards nomination. In 1999, she released a second CD, Drag Queens in Limousines, and performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Encouraged by her music career’s progress, she sold the Dixie Kitchen and her Boston condo and moved to Nashville.
18 years later, the music thing is still working for Gauthier. “I’ve supported myself with music since 2000,” she said. “I’m not worried about losing my job. I think I get to keep it.”