MARY GAUTHIER at Hugh's Room, July 10. Tickets: $16-$18. Attendance: 120. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
country music, man. it's all about giving good story. Think about it. Hank Williams the first, the Cashes (both papa Johnny and his baby girl Rosanne), Townes Van Zandt, even good ol' Dolly Parton. All of 'em know how to unravel a deliciously creaky yarn with the down 'n' dirty tangles and snares that keep a listener captivated.
Cheatin' hearts and no-good bastards may be dead horses, but all it takes is a good spin on the story and you've got yourself a juicy ballad that packs the wallop of a mickey of Jack Daniel's.
Mary Gauthier knows that any twang-peddling troubadour worth her salt had better be a fine storyteller. The Loo-siana roots country belter proved as much during her dazzling show at Hugh's Room last Thursday night, serving up a set of darkly detailed noirish musical portraits (calling Gauthier's vividly realized songs about life on the Southern fringes sketches doesn't do them justice) that were rivalled only by her folksy anecdotes about the stories behind the songs.
The high school dropout turned rehab reject turned ex-con turned restaurateur turned singer-songwriter (it's like she was born in an old country ditty, huh?) radiated understated, down-to-earth confidence and charisma onstage.
She grinned like a goofy kid, seemingly amazed that she could maintain a steady fingerpicked riff while waxing poetic about Ramblin' Jack (he compared her to Kerouac) and shithole motels by the highway. Gauthier managed the near-impossible feat of transforming the stuffy dinner-theatre vibe of upscale Hugh's Room into the feel of a thrillingly gritty hole-in-the-wall bar down South.
"This is highly civilized," she chuckled gruffly after her plainspoken opening number, the fatalistic I Drink (off 1999's breakthrough Drag Queens And Limousines).
"Most places I play, there's always some totally hammered guy who yells out, 'Yeah!' every time I sing the chorus!"
Gauthier leisurely made her way through achingly beautiful (if conventional) love ballads (A Long Way To Fall), a slew of quirky Americana snapshots (Christmas In Paradise, Camelot Motel) and sharp sociological critiques (the anti-death-penalty Karla Faye and Sugar Cane, which comments on the annual fiery harvest in her hometown of Thibodeaux, Louisiana), all delivered in a marvellously unaffected straight-up drawl.
But if Gauthier weren't such a kickass musician, she'd be a country music flop; it's her voice that gets you on that level. Rich and fractured, her singing is totally unaffected, less idiosyncratic than Lucinda Williams's plaintive warble, stronger than Dolly Parton's little-girl croon. It's the difference between buying newly antiqued modern versions of Shaker furniture and finding the perfect beat-up wooden chair left by the side of the road in a backwoods town.
Gauthier's voice is a story in itself, an unhewn entity that betrays its back history.