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To tell her truth

With her dark and intense songs, Mary Gauthier is far from the standard Nashville chanteuse. But her life and career have been full of surprises.

July 31, 2005|Michael McCall | Special to The Times

Nashville — Mary GAUTHIER never thought she'd sign with a major label.

As a songwriter who considers herself a folk singer, Gauthier knew that acoustic performers are rarely embraced by the top tiers of the record business these days, especially those who sing in a molasses-slow Southern drawl. That she's a lesbian in her 40s didn't exactly increase her marketability in a business based on youth and sex appeal.

"I just didn't think they'd get me," she says, smiling and shaking her head, her pale blue eyes just as intense as her darkly quiet songs about addicts, abusers and spiritual seekers. "I didn't really look in that direction because I didn't think it was possible."

To Gauthier's surprise, the record business came looking for her. Lost Highway Records, an artist-oriented subsidiary of Universal Music, invited Gauthier to join the label on the strength of her critically acclaimed 2002 album "Filth & Fire."

With a roster of younger artists Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt as well as veterans Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello, Lost Highway considered itself a sanctuary for outsiders. Gauthier felt right at home.

"Almost all of the artists I love hardly ever sold any records," says Gauthier, who uses the Cajun pronunciation "go-SHAY." "The music I love is mostly considered obscure, with a few exceptions, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. So I had no reason to suspect I'd ever sell many records, either. That's not why I write songs."

Nevertheless, on a recent hot summer night in Nashville, Gauthier stood onstage at the sold-out Belcourt Theatre. It was her first performance as a theater headliner, and she received a standing ovation before she played a note.

To open the show, Gauthier was joined by one of Music City's highest-profile media figures, TV anchorwoman Demetria Kalodimos, who has read the news for the local NBC affiliate, WSMV-TV, for 21 years. Kalodimos, who's also an independent filmmaker, directed the video for the title song for Gauthier's Lost Highway debut, "Mercy Now," which was shown before the concert.

The anchor and the folk singer provided striking contrasts on the Belcourt stage as they answered questions about the video and the song, which begins by asking for mercy for Gauthier's father and troubled brother, then offers a prayer for her religion and her country and eventually the entire world, saying "every single one of us could use some mercy now."

Kalodimos, asked why she prominently features a plate of pomegranates in the video, replied that Picasso had his oranges, and she thought she needed her own fruit. Gauthier, standing next to the director in a light plaid shirt over a ragged T and blue jeans, smiled and pointed a thumb at herself. The crowd exploded with laughter, and Kalodimos shook her head. "That was a poor choice of words," the newswoman said with a smile.

Gauthier's success and the crowd reaction are signs of how Nashville, the most conservative of American music capitals, is starting to become more diverse and tolerant.

Earlier this year, Cowboy Troy, a black hip-hop artist from Texas, released a country album; Gauthier, on the strength of "Mercy Now," was recently nominated by the Nashville-based Americana Music Assn. for album of the year, single of the year and new/emerging artist of the year.

"I don't think Lost Highway signed Mary expecting her to fit with country radio or what is usually marketed to a mainstream country audience," says Jeff Green, the AMA's executive director. "She's ... more in the mode of a John Prine or uncompromising artists like that. It's very authentic and cuts right to the core, and that's what makes her appealing to the Americana genre."

The song "Mercy Now" has made for some unexpected alliances. Radio talk show host and TV commentator Laura Ingraham, whom Gauthier described as "making Rush Limbaugh sound like a liberal," recently has been playing "Mercy Now" during her show and lists her as a favorite on her website.

"I purposely wrote the song so that it wasn't overtly political," says Gauthier, reflecting on Ingraham's support. "Still, I have to say, that was a little surprising to me."

Gauthier's getting used to surprises. On July 13, the day before her Nashville concert, she celebrated the 15th anniversary of her sobriety. That means she's been sober just as long as she had been an alcoholic and drug addict. "I figure I'm even now," she says with a smile.

Gauthier can still remember taking her first drink, at 13. "As soon as I put liquor in my body, I was a changed person," she says, fingering her coffee cup in a midtown Nashville cafe. "I went from feeling alone, unlovable and alienated to being the life of the party. Who wouldn't want to do that? It took away that hole inside me. I chased that feeling a long time, until it nearly killed me -- until I hit the point where I had to deal with the hole instead of putting chemicals in it."

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