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Mary Gauthier Brings Her Magic to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

September 30, 2019

Way back when Warren Hellman, the late financier, was pursuing his young fortune at Lehman Brothers, he was also attempting to secure banjo lessons with one of his heroes, Pete Seeger. The elder folk legend announced his activism with an inscription on his instrument, in colored capital letters: THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER. Alas, Hellman never got to study with the master, but he kept picking and went on in 2000 to found the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which will bring scores of performers from a hybrid crop of genres and hundreds of thousands of fans back to six stages in Golden Gate Park this coming weekend, and all for free. (Please note: There are some new security-related changes in policy regarding parking, entrances, and what you can bring into the festival this year. Check the HSBF website for details.)

One of the artists, Mary Gauthier (pronounced, “Go-shay”), announced an attribution about her own musical instrument in a TEDx Talk from Lincoln Center. “In the right hands,” she said, raising her battered guitar, “this is an empathy machine.” Since her first performances and recordings, Gauthier has drawn sympathetic attention to her songs about her personal struggles, more recently turning her talents to giving voice to wounded veterans and their families. She began life as an orphan in New Orleans, used alcohol and drugs to medicate her distress about her adoption and her sexuality, got arrested for drunk driving on the night she opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston in 1990, and has been sober and making music ever since.

Gauthier’s solo concerts and collaborations with country and other artists are numerous, and in 2019 she was nominated for a Best Folk Album Grammy and was awarded International Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association UK and Album of the Year by Folk Alliance International for Rifles & Rosary Beads, a compilation of songs developed with soldiers in workshops over the past several years. In the soft, dry, Southern-inflected tones also audible in her plaintive singing voice, Gauthier spoke by phone with SFCV from a tour stop in New England.

Will this be your first Hardly Strictly, Mary?

I don’t know why I haven’t been there, I think it’s just been on weekends when I was booked. But all my friends say the artists are treated really well, the audiences are massive, the weather’s great, and there’s a lot of joy around it. You can’t beat that for a festival recommendation.

Your songs, your voice, and your guitar style evoke intimacy. Will it be a different experience to play to thousands?

It can be, but I can’t change who I am and what I do. If you want to jump up and down and swing your hips, there’ll be a stage for that, if you want to see an icon like Buddy Miller or Emmylou Harris, you might go to a different stage. The people who want to pull up close and have a story told and be affected emotionally, and sometimes in an intense way, will find me. I don’t do it bigger or louder based on the environment.

Who’ll be with you on the Porch Stage on Saturday?

I’m going to show up with Jared Tyler, who’s going to be playing dobro and singing harmony, and Jaimee Harris, who’s going be playing guitar and singing harmony, so I’ll have some three-part harmonies going.

Any guests?

Don’t know, I’ll have to see who I run into, I might drag somebody. I’ve done stuff with Emmylou this year, and who knows, she might join me. And I’m coming in early, because there’s a tribute to Barbara Dane [92-year-old Oakland-based jazz, blues, and folk singer who’s receiving a lifetime award at the Hillside Club in Berkeley on Thursday, Oct. 3, at 6 p.m.]. So I might meet some folks there.

What have you been doing with Emmylou?

Her dad was a veteran — I didn’t know that — and her mom is a military spouse, so she’s been jumping in and singing a couple of the veterans’ songs with me.

Will your Saturday set draw mostly from that Rifles & Rosary Beads album?

That’s where my passion is right now, getting those songs in front of as many people as possible, to get civilians inside the experience of a soldier who’s been wounded.

What sort of variety has emerged from your writing sessions with the veterans?

I’ve got a female Marine who’s a combat pilot, a female grunt who’s a large-engine mechanic in the Army, in Fallujah, and she tells the story of military sexual trauma. I’ve got a love song from an EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] warrior to his wife, who sings that her love is the thing that saves him, and the story of EOD wives, what it’s like to be married to someone whose job is to dismantle live bombs with their hands. The title track off the album is from a young man named Joe Costello’s perspective, a kid going straight off a plane, into a firefight, what he saw, what he smelled, what he felt. Different types of wounds around different wars, but the bottom line is that every one of these songs is a song of peace. Underneath is a prayer for, please stop this madness.

Is country music — which I think people associate you with, unless they want to rename it “Americana” — a good genre for this kind of material

That’s a good question. Yes and no. Yes, because if I were to bring — and I have brought — one of my veterans with me to the Grand Ole Opry [the country music showcase in Nashville], they’re going to get a standing ovation straightaway. No, because once we get past that respect, it starts to get quite complicated. Because what the veterans are saying is, that these wars are hurting us, and we don’t know why, and I’m not sure the audience is ready to ask that question just yet. But that’s my job: I’m a folksinger, pretty much, more of a Woody Guthrie figure than a George Jones figure.

Well, you’re living in Nashville, so can you pronounce on the state of music there?

It’s pretty diverse. That they let me play the Opry pretty regularly speaks to the opening of doors. I’m openly gay, I look gay, like someone who plays with their gender, I don’t look like Carrie Underwood. My political opinions go against the mainstream of the culture in Tennessee — although Nashville is a solidly blue city. And it’s not always straight white guys, there’s diversity in the young people they’re bringing in. I’m not one of them, I’m 57, but when I’m in town and want to play, they let me on the stage. Though I’ve never been on country radio, and I don’t consider myself someone who’s trying to be.

Where do you get radio play?

I’m on Sirius XM a lot, on a bunch of Spotify playlists. I don’t write hits. I’m more interested in the stories. I’m looking for what keeps me up at night.

If not a hit writer, maybe you’re a heart writer.

That’s it! Well-spoken!

I expect, though, that there have been a number of people at Hardly Strictly who’ve adopted some of your songs, and this year there’s Bettye LaVette, who got nominated for a Grammy for your “Worthy.”

Bettye owns that song! Her memoir [A Woman Like Me, Blue Rider Press, 2012] starts with her pimp hanging her out of a window by her feet, threatening her life. So that woman can sing a song about learning her own “worth” with all her heart. And she does!

It suggests about your songs that people can take them and put them on themselves.

Yeah. That’s what a good song does. It speaks for many, many people.

Has channeling the stories of others, of the soldiers, been a significant changeup for you?

Yes. Most of my records have been me picking the things that were confusing and challenging for me personally. On this record, I’m just the midwife, not the baby.

How does that change in point of view feel to you?

Great! It’s liberating! I can be free of the worry of narcissism and self-indulgence.

I hear you’ve been working on your own memoir, and that it takes in both the older personal songs and the newer soldier songs.

In my book — I got a deal with St. Martin Press — one of the things I need to get into it is how I believe songwriting saved my life, so the book is called Saved by a Song. After I got clean from drugs and alcohol, I needed something to hang on to, and over and over, the thing I hung on to was writing and songwriting. Now people tell me my songs have helped save their lives, the veterans tell me the songs have transformed their trauma into something that’s useful for other people. Which is a form of salvation.

You must have been listening to music while you were still an addict. Did any of it sink in and become an influence?

There’s music you listen to in different types of being high, and when you’re drunk, you’re just sloppy-walking into shit and not making sense of anything. So it would be like blaming Lou Reed for my heroin addiction. But at the end of the day, music for many of us is a spiritual practice, and goes way past entertainment.

Are your songs a timeline of your personal development?

Absolutely! As Robert Earl Keen [who will also appear at Hardly Strictly] once said, “why should I write a memoir? You’ve got my songs.” A song is a reflection of where I’m at in my life, and where my understanding of my own soul is.

Aside from the soldiers, your website lists workshops you offer to other creators.

I’ll stay with SongwritingWith: Soldiers [the project founded in 2012 by singer/songwriter Darden Smith] as long as they’ll have me. But I also work with other songwriters, and break it down into art and craft. I can teach the craft: here’s where the chorus has to come, and here’s why. You need a different rhyme scheme in your chorus from in your verse. Here’s where your melody needs to lift. I can teach the way songs communicate, on a functional level. But the art part is different. It has to do with poetry, metaphor, and the successful use of vulnerability. And to teach that art is damn near impossible. But I can encourage the art, and show you where there’s some art in your work that’s working, and encourage you to deepen that.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.