MARY GAUTHIER with TOM RUSSELL , ANDREW HARDIN and GRETCHEN PETERS at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas West), Friday (March 25). $28.50-$30. 416-531-6604. Rating: NNNNN
In a field where platitudes and hyper-conservative jingoism dominate, seasoned roots/country songwriter Mary Gauthier is like an icy drink of water after too much BBQ.
The Loo-siana-bred, Nashville-based guitar-slinger may have entered the music biz late - she was 35 when she wrote her first tune - but her skill in crafting thrillingly vivid songs that'd never fly on CMT about colourful marginalized characters puts most lifers to shame.
Need to cleanse your palate after gagging on Tim McGraw's cheesy "skydiving and Rocky Mountain climbing"? Toby Keith's xenophobic Angry American getting you down? Drown your sorrows in a healthy dose of Gauthier's hard-livin' drag queens and strippers who'll break your heart.
Her strength doesn't just lie in the stories she tells, but in the way she tells them. Mercy Now, Gauthier's fourth album (her first for Lost Highway) reverberates with a wickedly dark sense of humour. Even when she's singing about gloomier stuff, like falling out of love, a dear friend's passing or "poisoned" U.S. politics, there's a dry, fatalistic undertone to Gauthier's lyrics that makes you feel like you're listening to a world-savvy pal who won't waste her time on bullshit.
Suggest that her tendency to tell it like it is might stem from a brief stint studying philosophy at college and Gauthier laughs it off.
"Naw, man. It's dry, but I'm like a three-year-old who speaks the truth when all the grown-ups want him to shut up. As adults, we're trained to censor ourselves. I just say what I see and feel. I take the opportunity to be a pain in the ass.
"I've always been a rebel, but it becomes more subtle as I get older," she continues, chuckling. "I realize now I'm pretty much the captain of my own destiny, so I've gotta find ways to rebel against myself."
If that "captain of my destiny" stuff sounds 12-step-programish, you're right.
A born shit-disturber who was adopted into a staunch Republican family, Gauthier ran away when she was a teenager, realizing her latent lesbianism wouldn't go over so well at home. She ran with a pack of drag queens, started drinking and doing drugs, fell in and out of rehab, got tossed in jail, started a successful Cajun restaurant and, finally, stopped using and boozing.
Most musicians can't write unless they're knackered, but Gauthier claims she couldn't write a thing till she got clean.
"The night my restaurant opened, I was arrested for drunk driving, and it made me get sober. That's probably the most important thing that ever happened to me. I never would've been a songwriter otherwise. Come July 15, I'll be sober as long as I'd been drinking - 15 years."
Although her commitment to sobriety hasn't wavered, one of the best songs on Mercy Now is called I Drink. The sweetly comic ode to hardened tipplers is like Gauthier's version of Popeye's "I yam what I yam."
"Fish swim, birds fly, lovers leave by and by," she sings in her weathered alto. "Old men sit and think I drink."
Gauthier may have written the tune after she cleaned up, but it still sounds like every excuse every alcoholic has ever made. That frankness probably explains why people like Blake Shelton have covered I Drink. It's also why Gauthier's label encouraged her to re-record a warm, existentialist version of the tune, which originally appeared on her sophomore breakout, 1999's Drag Queens And Limousines, for Mercy Now.
A queer, leftist former hooligan who's making it at age 40 in a field often associated with young upstarts from the red states, Gauthier seems pretty Zen. Ask her about being an out-and-proud star in Nashville and she snorts.
"Man, people don't pay any attention to me, cuz I'm not a Dixie Chick. I'm down there in the basement with folks like Emmylou (Harris) and Steve (Earle) who don't expect or want to get any airplay on mainstream country radio."
Not that she's dissing all mainstream stars.
"I'd love for one of those guys to record one of my songs and give it more exposure. Like Toby Keith. It's easy to hate him cuz he's such a strapping white guy, and we don't let them get away with much.
"You know, I couldn't stand his posturing and that grandstanding patriotism, but then I got to see him through Willie Nelson's eyes, cuz Willie recorded one of his songs. Did you know Toby's actually a Democrat?"