What's most disarming about Mary Gauthier is that she isn't playing rock & roll. Her obsession with the harrowing existence of the American underclass -- death-row prisoners, strippers, drug dealers, junkies, alcoholics, transvestites, minimum-wage workers, those sick with AIDS and their friends who must watch them die -- place her in the same lineup as Patti Smith or Lou Reed. Her country/folk music can be subtle -- the arrangements feature lots of mandolin from Blood Oranges alum Jimmy Ryan, drums, bass and organ, scrappy electric-guitar licks -- but it's as dangerous as rock & roll ever was, not because it shakes the bones but because it illuminates them.
Gauthier (pronounced "go-shay") grew up in Thibodaux, La., dropped out of high school, stole her folks' car and made it all the way to detox in Baton Rouge and jail proper in Kansas City. She cleaned up enough to study philosophy and attend culinary school and now divides her days between running a restaurant in Boston and writing songs. Her Louisiana drawl sometimes scathes, sometimes soothes, and her stories are filled with a restlessness that hurls the self hard and far enough that life can become whole again. Fears are intimate -- "This morning I'm scared/I don't know how to be" -- and honesty is redeeming. Gauthier's best song may be "Different Kind of Gone," which rolls on layers of Wurlitzer piano and guitar that sound as haunted as her voice: "Yes I know it hurts you when I go/It kills you that I disappeared/after we made love all those nights in a row." Or her best song may be "Karla Faye," an elegy for a woman who found God on death row and was executed in Texas last year.
Contemporary folk music isn't often this riveting and wise or conveyed in music and words free enough of pretense and sentiment that their discomforting truths can't be denied, even when it's safer to do so. Gauthier's songs are steadily shot, undoctored Polaroids of lives most would just as soon forget -- or, worse, pity or maybe even snuff out -- and she sings them as if she's nailing them to your front door.
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