Mary Gauthier is "The Troubadour"Feb 08, 2022
February 15th, 2022
Episode 13: Mary Gauthier, The Troubadour
Mary Gauthier is a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter who moved to Nashville at the age of 39 to start her career in music. She battled addiction early in life and overcame it with the help of writing and performing music. She's been named one of the greatest songwriters of her generation because her work pierces and transcends with its grit and honesty.
This episode is for you if:
-You struggled with addiction
-You love incredibly deep and introspective conversations with artists
-You appreciate a good story with a late-bloomer main character
-You're obsessed with Mary Gauthier (as is Host Lauren Lowrey)
What's in this episode?
Mary does a deep dive into the healing power of music and the role it plays in helping people know they're not alone. She goes into great detail about her struggles with drugs and alcohol and how she found her purpose.
Mary's story expresses two powerful ideas. First, that purpose can call at any time. She was a head chef who opened and owned restaurants around Boston in her 20's and 30's. At age 39 -and eleven years sober- she left it all to move to Nashville to write songs full time. Mary's story also illustrates the way her soul's purpose communicated with her, describing it as "a whisper."
Best of all, Mary uses her guitar to show how she translates emotion from a story to a song and her process of co-writing songs with people who need the most healing: combat veterans.
📝 Show Notes & Mentions 📝
Club Passim outside of Boston near Cambridge where Mary first started singing at Open Mic Nights
Mary's amazing book, Saved by a Song
Mary's songwriting workshops
Songwriting with Soldiers, the organization that brings songwriters together with combat veterans and their families to tell their stories through song
Rifles and Rosary Beads, the album and the title track of Mary's Grammy-nominated album
Songwriters Mary mentioned: John Prine, Nancy Griffith, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, David Olney, David Bowie
A quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, JR “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
0:00 - Intro
1:46 - Best Time/Worst Time
3:25 - Mary’s greatest moment of clarity
6:39 - Mary’s purpose
10:14 - Healing through music
14:16 - No need to be a pro
17:03 - Mary’s Chef life
19:53 - Listening to the whispers
25:55 - When people try to stop you
27:36 - Songwriting with Soldiers
32:15 - GUITAR: How Mary hears emotion in music
38:28 - Simplicity in songs
40:11 - GUITAR: Story behind Rifles & Rosary beads
- How do I express to you how obsessed I am with Mary Gauthier? Well, it started in a bookstore in Nashville. The book practically jumped off the shelf and smacked me in the face. It was called "Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting." Whoever had written that book, their soul was on those pages. It reached out and it grabbed me. It spoke to me, and I knew then and there I needed to meet whoever had written that book. It was Mary Gauthier, a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter. She's been named one of the greatest songwriters of her generation. Her songs are simple, they're acoustic, and so gritty. Jimmy Buffett, Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, and the list goes on, they're just a few people who've recorded her songs. But she didn't actually start in music. She started as an addict, and drifted a bit before becoming a chef in her 20s. At 28 she got sober, and started playing music. About 10 years later, age 39, she moved to Nashville and went full-time in music. Now, think about that. She started in music when most people were winding down their careers. I interviewed her on the night before she went into the studio to begin recording her 11th studio album. Mary is unlike anybody I've ever met. She's so cool I'll go as far to call her my spirit animal. This is "Mary Gauthier, The Troubadour." So, Mary, I like to start by playing a little game. Do you like games?
- Let's do it.
- Okay. So it's just a series of questions. All you have to do is be truthful. Are you ready?
- I'll do my best.
- All right. When was the best time in your life?
- The best time in my life? Well, that's a, the best time in my life is right now.
- Okay. Tell me why.
- Because I am more balanced, centered, sober, peaceful, calm, than I've ever been.
- When was the worst time in your life?
- The opposite of that.
- Well, yeah.
- When I wasn't sober, balanced, peaceful, or calm. Getting sober was big for me, and staying sober remains important. But being sober today, feeling my recovery is, I'm just so grateful, and I experience that as a verb. And so that's why I would answer that truthfully, right now, right here.
- I love that. I love that you're so present-minded. When was a turning point for you?
- Well, again, when I got arrested for drunk driving in 1990, and I realized that I had a problem. And I was able to get help and get sober, and I continue to get help to stay sober. And, you know, sometimes it takes something really, really serious to get your attention, and getting arrested for drunk driving was serious.
- Yeah. And it happened on a big night. It was the night I opened my second restaurant, and it was a opening-party celebration. And as I was driving home I got pulled over.
- When was a greatest moment of clarity for you? Like, is there a moment in your life where you can say, "That, that. That's the clarity point."?
- Gosh, for me, clarity is a process more than a moment. Although in that moment, in that jail cell, when it was supposed to be a celebration of success, was pretty clarifying. But I think that clarity comes in fits and starts. And often it's in retrospect. When I'm looking back it becomes clear, as I contemplate what has transpired I become clearer. Also, as a writer, I think you experience life differently when you write about it. I think clarity comes very much, as a songwriter and an author, from writing.
- Because you're trying to sort it out and heal from it at the same time, aren't you?
- That's exactly what writers are doing, whether they know it, or admit it, or not, it's what we're doing.
- Tell me something about your nature that you feel like you've overcome, or you continue to overcome.
- I'm always dealing with my addictive nature. We had the discussion of the cookies when I got here. It's really hard for me to have a cookie.
- I have a very addictive nature. And if it feels good I want more. And just fill in the blank. I have to deal with that. I know I cannot have drugs and alcohol. I still struggle with a lot of other things. And I don't know if you ever fully overcome it, but being aware of it is certainly helpful. To know that, okay, I'm going too far here. If I go any further there's gonna be consequences. With sugar I get terrible migraines, but I still push it to the edge because my addictive nature.
- Yeah, "I feel okay, I'll have another."
- And another. Yeah, yeah. That's my Achilles heel, for sure.
- What do you find yourself saying a lot lately? Are there phrases that come outta your mouth?
- Hmm. I think lately what I tend to be saying is, don't make long-range plans.
- Yeah, that taught a lot, didn't it?
- We don't know what's coming and we don't know if there's more. Apparently there is more.
- And everything seems to be in motion and changing. So a day at a time seems to be a pretty good strategy.
- And has been for the last couple of years.
- Well, and as a touring artist, that's difficult.
- It's difficult because you gotta book shows. But we're sitting in the show these days thinking, this could be canceled in the middle, you know, like-
- Oh, yeah.
- Anything could happen. It's complete Wild West.
- Yeah. So, I mean, that is life in the gravy boat, truly. At that point, you're like, "Oh, well tonight happened, great! Nothing could be finer."
- "Tonight happened and we don't have a breakthrough infection and we're gonna try it again tomorrow night. But who know? "
- "Who knows?" Oh, my gosh. What do you think your purpose is right now?
- My purpose, I believe, is to be an artist and to create. So whether I'm writing essays or working on songs, I'm going the studio to make a new record, this week coming. My purpose is to be an artist. And underneath that, the deeper purpose for me is service. And I need to be of service to several things. I need to be of service to truth, to beauty. I think my work speaks to a broad range of people, but a awful lot of 'em have been told they don't belong. And those are my people. I want to be of service to those who feel they don't belong.
- Is that from your own experience?
- Absolutely! I was told I don't belong. And I know that belonging is a very, very primal need. So I wanna sing to folks and write my book, books, hopefully, to folks who've been told that too. And the message is we belong together. Outsiders United.
- When do you think you realized all of that was your purpose?
- Oh, gosh, that's been a long process. Been a long process. I think, as time moves forward and I get older, it just becomes clearer and clearer. I didn't know, when I was drawn to music and song, that I was supposed to do it in service. But I learned that, that the songs that I write in service are the ones that resonate. And it became clearer and clearer. The first time I played a big festival I was so excited 'cause I thought I was going there to sell a lot of CDs and make some money. And I get to the line after I play, thinking I'm gonna sell a lot of CDs. And there's people in it who are in tears. And I realize, "Oh, my god, I'm not here to sell a lot of CDs, I'm here to listen to the stories and comfort." My songs have this emotional component that can pull people open. And I receive that.
- Well, and they have that component because they were written in that place, right? I mean, that only life experience can bring.
- 'Cause you felt those emotions, or helped people-
- Who felt those emotions. Right? Don't you think?
- Yeah, absolutely. They're written in vulnerability and they tend to, what would be the word? To generate vulnerability. And of course we're all vulnerable, anyway, so we can act like we're not, but we are. And vulnerable to what? Well, there's a lot of things we're vulnerable. Mostly we need love. And we are in need of each other. And people struggle with all of that. And so do I. And so the songs open people up, and I realized, that very first big festival, that I'm not gonna be able to do this real fast. It's not gonna be a quick, gimme your money and then, "Next!" The cash register, it's not gonna be the way it works for me.
- That's a commercial artist, young person game. Right? That what you're describing. What you're doing is something different.
- It's different.
- You're holding space, you're doing therapy sessions.
- In a way, it's therapeutic.
- Healing sessions.
- In every song, in every probably co-write.
- Yeah. Yeah.
- In every concert.
- That's really incredible work.
- Yeah. And the healing is not what you think it is. The healing is really letting people know they're not alone. I don't fix their life or anything. Songs can't do that. But songs can bring empathy. And we need empathy.
- We need empathy. We need to know that someone else feels, and has felt, exactly the way we feel, and they understand.
- You know, that's what songs do best, and that's my job.
- Well, and what is it? I mean, in all the years that you've been playing and thinking about this and writing about this, what is it about music that can do that, and songs that can do that, in a way that conversations can't? Why do we feel that from music?
- Because, I think, music is what feelings sound like. Music is, by definition, emotion. And I think it transcends language. We can feel music without having to think about words. And we feel it in a primal way. There's a reason that music and song is the last thing to go in a memory, with Alzheimer's.
- Really? I didn't know that.
- So someone could maybe sing a song or sing the lyrics of a song or hum the tune.
- They can sing "Love Me Tender," but not remember their spouse of 50 years.
- Wow. Well, it's a process in a totally different place of the brain, right? I mean, music is.
- I think it just goes really, really, really deep. It goes to the core of what we're made of. Maybe the vibration we're made of is not even light. Maybe it's sound, and maybe the sound of it is music.
- Oh, that's provocative. I like that.
- It's possible.
- And I think, too, something that I find so interesting about what you talk about, is about how, you know, we didn't figure out how to monetize music until the last century. But until then, I mean-
- People just sang and played together.
- Right, for thousands of years, right?
- I mean, when there's something to celebrate, what did you do? You sang.
- You sang.
- Or something to grieve. You sang.
- I wonder if that's part of why we feel so much community, and why probably concerts get people so excited, because it does speak to some nature of community through sound.
- Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. You go to the Bridgestone and have, what is it, I don't know, 40,000 people singing together. It's a transcendent experience.
- And it's something that brings us outside of our own individual experience into this connectedness that we long for.
- Like a school of fish or a flock of birds. We sing together. That's what we do well together, as people.
- For sure.
- Isn't that interesting? How old do you think you were when you just sort of realized that, that that connection came together, that there was community in music?
- Mm, well, I needed community when I got sober. When I would no longer drink or use drugs I had a lot of time to deal with in every single day. Like, "What do people do? Oh, my god, it's three o'clock. I've got another seven hours before I can go to bed." I mean, if you don't drink and hang out with your friends or smoke some dope, what do people do? And I had to literally figure that out. And that is how I ended up going to open mics, and writing songs, and then playing music with people. And that was how I found my way back, is through the creative process of writing and playing music. And singing with people, and listening to other people's songs. It gave me a thing to do. And it's maintained itself for 31 years now. That's still what I do.
- Yeah, I think that's so fortunate, you know, that you were able to find that. But you had found music earlier, right? I mean, you had picked up a guitar when you were younger, you just hadn't given it all the focus.
- Yeah. Well, I didn't have the understanding that you didn't have to be a professional to write a song. The music business is only 80-something years old, but it has certainly done a good job of convincing people that professionals write songs, which is just false.
- Oh, I like how you say that.
- You know, kids write songs all the time.
- I mean, I write, you're gonna laugh, I write little tiny lullabies to my little children, and I sing them, those are the songs that they request.
- It's real!
- They don't want the other songs. They want Mom's songs for bedtime, 'cause they just love them.
- But, see, you've internalized the belief that those aren't real songs, the real songs are written by professionals.
- Yeah, you're right.
- I'd invite you to consider those are real songs.
- I'm guilty. I'm guilty.
- We just make it up. That's what songwriting is. And so I didn't know that, until I desperately needed to do something with my time and I went to this open mic at club Passim in Harvard Square, outside of Boston, in Cambridge, and saw people doing it. Like, "I wanna do that." I realized, "Oh, songwriters are people who make up songs." They don't have to be professionals.
- Right. Right. And in that experience, what did you notice about some of the people that got on stage? Did you see when someone stood out?
- Did you see-
- Oh, yeah.
- When somebody resonated, and how did that impact your work?
- Oh, yeah, what impressed me the most, and still does, is when a songwriter's honest. I'm not one for the razzle dazzle, I don't care about huge vocal chops, as much as I care about honesty and vulnerability. 'Cause I'm coming at it from what I need, which is to know that I belong. So if someone is superhuman, that makes me feel like I could be in awe of that and respect it, but that does nothing to make me feel like I belong. But if a regular-looking person sings something honest that I have experienced and I get empathy from that, check.
- That's impressive to me. And that's what I believe that music and songs can do, in addition to the supercharged, multinational, corporate music business. This ground level stuff really matters, too.
- Yeah. It does. Do you think people find the ground level at a later part in life, or do you think they find it just whenever they need it?
- They find it when they need it.
- Yeah. And a lot of this can be done at a very high level. I mean, Bruce Springsteen does this, and he does it with 80,000 people.
- Yeah. That's a gift.
- It's a sacred gift.
- Tell me that transition, because you were a chef, you were a trained chef living and working in Boston, working in restaurants, then owning restaurants, opening restaurants. Tell me what happened in your 30s. When you started you were sober, you started playing and you started writing, you started recording, all while running restaurants. What was that life, that time like for you?
- Well, yeah, I was, I was not going into the music business. I was filling my time with music and song, when I wasn't running a restaurant, because I needed something to do.
- And I really enjoyed the people that I was meeting. The other artists really were interesting to me and welcoming, and I needed friends that weren't drug addicts and alcoholics, like I was. 'Cause I was trying to stay sober, and I was staying sober. So the restaurant business was how I made my living, music was how I wanted to spend my time when I wasn't at work. And then it started to switch. After about five or six years I started thinking, "I might really wanna do this. I might really wanna walk from the restaurant and make music." And that was a long process, a terrifying process, of coming to terms with the fact that, in spite of the music industry, I was called to be a songwriter and be a musician. You know? It was much later in life.
- Yeah, and that's scary.
- I was approaching 40. Who starts at 40?
- Yeah. Who moves to Nashville? You were coming in when people wind down.
- And I came in openly gay. So just fill in the story. A openly gay woman comes to Nashville at 40 to start a music career.
- In the year, like 2000, right?
- In 2000.
- Wasn't this 2000? Like-
- This doesn't end well. It's not done. And yet here I am.
- It's been such an incredible place for me. I have found so much energy here for exactly what I was looking for. And it's been against all odds. Exactly what I shoulda done.
- Yeah. And probably at just the right time, right? It probably couldn't have happened earlier, and it could, maybe it could have happened later. That's the interesting thing, I think, about when you're called to do something. Maybe the window arises and hopefully you follow it and hopefully it works out, I think it did for you.
- I think it did, it worked out beautifully for me. I have zero complaints, and I'm deeply grateful. But everybody I knew at the time said, "Don't do it."
- It's just, you're crazy. You're leaving a successful business for a pipe dream.
- There was no evidence that I was gonna make it, but yet, the calling called and I answered.
- Yeah, and I wanna push you on this 'cause I think this is part of why I wanted to do not just this podcast, but your episode specifically, because I feel like something I've heard, I've heard you articulate it this way, is that there are whispers. And we all have the choice to listen to the whispers of what-
- That's right.
- We feel like our life, what we're called to do with our life. At what point do you think you heard the whispers, and what made you decide to listen to that? To switch careers?
- And, against all odds, move to Nashville and do this?
- Well, it was a process more than an event. But over time, playing open mics and getting a little better at it, and making a record, and having my very first record, against all odds, get nominated as one of the best new folk artists of 1995, in Boston, where everybody had a folk guitar at the time. And I was just astonished that I got a nod there. I didn't win, but I was certainly encouraged. And the universe gave me clues.
- Like what? What kinds of hints and clues?
- Well, people I admired told me they liked my songs. Being nominated for that award, being given a chance to play venues that were above my ability to fill. But people wanted to help me.
- The helping hands all around me.
- Don't you think that's a clue?
- [Mary] Yeah.
- When the doors start to open.
- Or when the people step out and say, "Yeah, I don't have any reason to help you, this doesn't help me, but I'm gonna help you. I don't know why I'm doing this, but I'm gonna help you."
- That's exactly how it went for me, over and over and over again. Keith Case, who was my first agent, said, "Mary, I don't even know if I can get $50 a night for you, and I have no understanding of why I'm doing this, but I'll be your agent." You know, God bless him. He was my agent here on Music Row, it's I moved to Nashville.
- And he put me on the Row with Guy Clark. Changed my life. You know, I got to see the master. You know, one of the great folk singers of all time. And, you know, then I got to tour with John Prine, and Nancy Griffith, and really that's all I needed. Guy Clark, John Prine, Nancy Griffith, here's how it's done, go do it. And so the whisper that I talk about in my book is the little inkling that says, "Try it, try it." The calling that I experienced never shouted. It never said, "You must!" It never did that. It's just a subtle, "Try it," you know, "Try it. If it fails, you know how to open restaurants, you will find investors and open another restaurant. If you go broke and fail, you will not die. Try it. Why not? Give it your all and see what happens." I think I'm still at that. I'm still giving it my all and see what happens. And I really haven't gave up on the, if I need to open a restaurant. But I don't!
- I think by this point, by this point, I mean, you've done this successfully for quite some time. I don't think there's a restaurant, unless you decided, "This would bring me joy right now. Maybe I'll just start a restaurant."
- No, I think I'm done with restaurants. But, if I had to, I could. And I think that the whisper of a calling is a very subtle thing. And I think that a lot of folks expect it to shout and it never does. And we have free will. So we can say no. We're free to say no. And people say no all the time. And I didn't wanna be someone on my deathbed who reflected on what I was hearing in the background, and said no. Like, okay, I'll do it, even though it's terrifying and this is ridiculous.
- Do you think that part of your story resonates with people, or do you think it's the sobriety? What do you find most people gravitate toward of your own personal stories?
- I think people gravitate towards being a late bloomer, 'cause we also have this youth culture where we're expected to have it all figured out at 21.
- Which is like, I mean, it's just not even possible. Every now and then you have someone who figured it out at eight. I've seen research that suggests fewer than 20% of people know, from a younger age, what they wanna do. Maybe not all the details figured out, but they know like, "I'm gonna be a meteorologist, that's what I'm gonna do." But very few of us do.
- Very few. Very few, and I think one of the great joys of being in a Western nation with a lot of opportunity is we don't have to do one thing. We can completely change channels.
- My Uncle Bernard became a therapist at 62.
- Oh, I love that.
- Went back to college and decided he wanted to be a therapist. He went from being a engineer to completely changing. And that modeled for me. I can go from being a restaurateur to being a songwriter.
- Let let's talk about those outside forces when you're gonna make a big choice like you made. I know it stands out to you in your story. I'm sure it stands out to other people, too. Just about how, you know, people didn't have the vision you had, they didn't have the whispers you had, and they probably, out of love, wanted to talk you out of it.
- Or maybe out of like their own financial interests. Like your investors might have said, "Nah, this is dumb. Mary, why in the hell would you do that?"
- Yeah, that's part of it, probably. Yeah, yeah. I just think that if you're gonna just change everything and do something really different, it's gonna freak people out.
- Is it because people, we all want someone to fit in a box, or do you think it's forcing a person to confront their own unanswered whisper?
- I don't know, I think maybe it's legitimately risky and they're afraid for you. And if they care for you, they don't wanna see you fall and fail. You know, it could be that too. Like it could be genuine concern, like, "Gay people don't move to Nashville at 40 and start a music career, Mary."
- In 2000. I mean, 2000, yeah, we're slightly progressive, but not progressive enough-
- We're not that progressive
- In 2000.
- In 2021.
- I mean, come on. I mean, gimme the list. Uh, no, nobody. And I don't think that people wanted me to get hurt. You know, they were like, "Just stay up here in Boston. It's progressive."
- It's safe here.
- But it's brand confusion. I'm a Southern woman.
- Yeah, you were born and raised in Louisiana.
- I'm Southern. And Nashville resonated with me. I love the songwriters. And, oh, my god, because I came here, I got to be on the Row with Willie Nelson. You know? I love this town. I belong in this town. And so I needed to carve out my space in this town, and I'm grateful that I was able to do that. And people took chances on me. And they still do!
- I'm not the biggest seller, but I'm a lifer.
- I'm a long-game person. We may not run it up the charts, but we're gonna be running for a long, long time.
- Let's talk about what gave you commercial success, critical acclaim, and then also, probably, just this incredible feeling of fulfillment, your work with soldiers, Songwriting for Soldiers, the organization that you were asked to be a part of years and years ago, explain how that process works. What you sit down and do, and then what you created from that.
- Yeah, I've been working with SongwritingWith:Soldiers going on nine years now, and they'll be celebrating 10 years next year, so I've been there from almost the beginning. And what it is is a nonprofit that pairs professional songwriters with wounded veterans, and often their families, especially their spouses. And we go to a retreat center and bear witness, and we take the stories and turn them into songs. And we are co-writing with the veterans and their wives, even though they're not songwriters. Because what we're doing is getting their story and putting it into their song. So it's a co-write, 'cause they're giving the ideas to the songwriter and then those songs gets sung and a lot of incredible things can happen from that.
- Help me understand how that works. Gimme the rundown of, you sit down with a person who's a veteran.
- Yeah, well, let's-
- How does it start?
- Let's just say you served in Afghanistan, or Iraq, and you've got PTSD, or trauma, or any of the myriad of war injuries that people come home with. So we sit down and I ask you, "So where'd you serve?" "When'd you serve? What was it like?" "It's not easy being a woman in the military. Did you have struggle with that?" Start to open a conversation up and ask questions that lead to questions, and kind of like what you do as a journalist, I'll find out about a person, and create safety by body language, and eye contact, and yes, vibe, like you're doing right now.
- Vibe that I'm with you. I'm with you.
- Exactly. But humans read that as safe.
- I'm safe to talk. And then I'll get the guitar and find a melody that matches some of what I'm being told. And the music's like a magnet that begins to pull more story out, and we'll create this intimacy with the music and the story. And then once you hear your words sung back to you, you really feel seen, and there is something that happens that builds trust, so that more story comes. And I've often had veterans say, "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. My wife doesn't even know this."
- Well, part of it's because there's something about you though, Mary. I think because you've lived, you've lived so much life.
- You know, I mean, you made hard choices and you put yourself in hard situations, you survived, you got through it, and then you de-shamed the story-
- That you lived. And you found so much healing through all of that. So like everything you bring to every conversation, every word you write is nonjudgmental. There's nothing about you that's judgmental. So I think like there's, we have to say something about that, too. It's not just that a veteran's gonna share their story with you. They feel that you will not judge them for what they're gonna say.
- Absolutely not, all I wanna do, and all any of the songwriters wanna do, is get the best possible song with that person that we sit with. Judgment is gonna get in the way of that. We want the best possible song. So I use music and song to help me heal. And I know that music and song can help them heal. And I go there with that knowledge. And the requirement is honesty. That's all. But that's the hardest thing. Emotional honesty is the hardest thing. Especially for soldiers, 'cause they're told to shut down emotion. Emotion gets people killed.
- You gotta shut that down. And I'm asking the hardest thing, which is open it up. But the music will help. And it is a process that can take some of the worst things that have happened and alchemize them. It's alchemy. It is, it's literally alchemy.
- Here's what I wanna understand, and this is gonna involve your guitar. So I wanna understand, in the mind of Mary Gauthier, I know you said that music is what feelings sound like.
- Sound like.
- So when you hear someone express an emotion, do you immediately hear a chord, or how does that work in your mind?
- Well, the way that it works is tied to words, as well, and story. So, you know, I worked with a woman who was in the infantry. And those are the people that go first. They go first. The infantry's tough. And she was a chaplain's assistant in the infantry. So they were first on the scene of casualties and injuries. And she was betrayed by the chaplain she assisted. He sexually assaulted her.
- Oh, my.
- So I knew when I heard that story, and I watched her strength, we weren't gonna go sad. We're gonna go, "I'm a soldier in the infantry."
- We're rocking.
- That's right. Her spirit comes in strength. It hurt her.
- But it didn't destroy her. And the thing that the story needed to tell was, "I'm a soldier in the infantry. He didn't take that from me." And he is not the story. The story is the resilience, and the courage to tell the story. So to me the sound of that is rock and roll.
- Can we hear some of that? Like the part that you think really portrays that?
- I didn't record that one. You know? So.
- Oh, you didn't?
- Uh-uh. But it's ... ♪ I was 17, mm, na, na, na, na ♪ ♪ Ah ha ah ha ♪ That thing. ♪ Mm-Hmm, mm-hmm ♪ ♪ I'm a soldier in the infantry ♪
- Yeah, so it drives, right? Because you could feel her like-
- It's got a drive. Bass and drums.
- She's just going.
- She's like, "I have not been defeated. And to show that I'm not defeated I'm gonna be brave enough to tell this god-awful story. And stand with it and stand by it." Knowing that when you tell the story, a whole other wave of potential injuries will come. Every woman knows, when you tell that story, there will be those who say you're lying.
- Mm. Right.
- But she's in the infantry.
- She can deal with it. She can handle it. Bring it on.
- People typing on a computer, put that up against someone who went in the front lines and was in the infantry. That's what I want to get across. So bass, drums, and rock and roll. And it helped her to see her own strength. She wasn't sure, but the music helped her to see it's there.
- That's incredible. What do you think you see, or maybe the better way to ask this is, when you have written a song with a soldier who has just kind of entrusted you with their story, how do you know that you've gotten it right?
- Eyes, I can see if it's reflected back that it's right. And I'll ask 'em too, please, please, please, tell me if we're getting off track, or if that's not what you would say, or if I missed something, because you're co-writing with me. And there's nothing you can say that I can't find another word for. If there's lexicon in my brain, I will find the way to say it that matches what you mean. Don't be worried, I'm a professional songwriter.
- "I do this for a living."
- Back to the thing, I became a professional at a certain point. But I really feel like the eyes are where we see it working. It's very hard to have eye contact when you have post-traumatic stress.
- And I'm sure there's some shame, and some embarrassment, so much embarrassment.
- There's never PTSD without shame. The shame is that it happened. "I couldn't prevent it from happening." That's shame-based, that I wasn't able to prevent it. We gotta de-shame it, and how do you de-shame it? You de-shame it by telling it. And the big magic moment always is, "Me, too." Others come up and say, "Oh, my god, me, too." And they're like, "Are you serious?" And you feel, there's the magic. That's the empathy.
- Of music, of story and song.
- Writing it's only part one. You need part two for it to really be alchemy. And the part two is the "Me, too." Is to have fellow sufferers say, "You speak for me. That is my truth." And now we're not alone.
- What's another one of those songs that you think really has done that, that's created real alchemy?
- Oh, gosh, every great song does that. I think that's what they do. David Bowie was the best at it.
- Oh, I love that.
- Don't you think?
- With his total revolutionary look. And he made it cool to be weird and different.
- Yeah, to be different. Totally.
- And emotional. And in his older years he was sober, and he made beautiful adult music. His last record is astonishing. And I think that that is everywhere in great music, everywhere. I think that's one of the things that is primary in it.
- Well, and I find it interesting, too, something about your style is there's so much simplicity in it.
- But so much, I mean, there's so much provocative truth in everything that you write, not just in your book, but everything you write about in your songs. And I love this concept of reduction that you open, actually, your book about. You reduce, reduce, reduce, take out the superfluous words, take out the things that aren't needed, so that we reduce to just the exact word, the right word at the right time with the right chord, for the greatest impact.
- That's exactly how you write songs.
- I love it, I love it, please, please, explain your-
- And that's why I came to Nashville. 'Cause the best of the best have all been here and have come through here, if they aren't still here. That is what great songwriters do. They get rid of everything that doesn't have to be there. And they say exactly, in the least words possible, the truth, and it is not easy. But it is simple. Simplicity is not a synonym for easy. Simple and easy are different things. Simplicity, I think, is the reason great country songs are great, because they speak to everybody. You don't have to have a college education to understand the simplicity of a beautiful, beautiful well-written lyric. You know, the greats all did that. Harlan Howard, Tom T. Hall, the Nashville guys, you know, Tom Douglas, Lori McKenna's doing it today.
- It's not the complexity that's of interest, it's the simplicity.
- Something you may not, I associate this lesson with another one of your songs, with "Rifles & Rosary Beads." That album, and then the title track of that album, garnering you a Grammy nomination, which I'm sure made you very proud. But there's something about that song that really sticks out to me, because just as you hear, "Rifles and Rosemary," uh, rosemary, "Rifles and Rosary Beads," I beg your pardon, there's something about when you say, "the Vicodin morphine dreams." Like, there's three words. And suddenly I get it. I just get it. I see what you were seeing when you wrote that song, you know? Do you mind playing some of that for me?
- Not at all. Play a chord. ♪ Rifle ♪ Let me find it. ♪ Rifles and rosary beads ♪ ♪ You hold on to what you need ♪ ♪ Vicodin morphine dreams ♪ ♪ Rifles, rosary beads ♪ ♪ Rifles and rosary beads ♪ ♪ You hold on to what you need ♪ ♪ Vicodin morphine dreams ♪ ♪ Rifles, rosary beads ♪
- Tell me where you were and who you were with when you were writing that song.
- I wrote this with a young man who served in the surge of Fallujah, his name's Joe Costello. And when we sat down, I asked him, "Well, what was it like? And how old were you? And where'd you serve?" And he said, "Well, I was 19 years old and they flew me into Fallujah, and it was during the surge, and I was in the Army. And when I got off the plane ..." I said, "I tell you what, don't tell me, just tell me what you saw." 'Cause he started choking up and, "Just the visuals, like pictures." He said, "Well, yellow smoke, and there was orange haze everywhere. And there was guys with rosary beads, and some of 'em were holding their father's rosary beads that made it through Vietnam."
- Oh, Lord.
- Mm-hmm. "And they were praying the rosary, other guys were holding their weapons with white knuckles." So holding 'em so tight. I said, "Well, Joe, that's a title, man. 'Rifles and Rosary Beads.' That's incredible. That's incredible." The juxtaposition of those two things is a powerful thing, so I just, you know. ♪ Yellow smoke, orange haze ♪ ♪ Blowin' into my eyes ♪ ♪ Whistling sunset bombs ♪ ♪ I couldn't trust the sky ♪ ♪ Rifles and rosary beads ♪ ♪ You hold on to what you need ♪ ♪ Vicodin morphine dreams ♪ ♪ Rifles, rosary beads ♪
- He said the whistling bombs would come in at sunset. And the fear was that they would land close enough to kill you. And it happened every day.
- And how did you get the line about Vicodin morphine dreams?
- Well, I said, "You hold on to what you need." And he said, "Yeah man, that's good. Let's put that in there." And then I asked him, "Well, what'd you hold on to?" And he didn't wanna say, he said, "Well, you know." I said, "Well, it's not rifles and rosary beads." And so he whispered, "Some like Vicodin." I'm like, "Vicodin. I understand that."
- You're like, "When I was addicted."
- "Ah, that makes sense to me, I understand completely how that would help you deal with every single sunset, thinking a bomb is going to blow up so close to you that you're gonna die.
- "Is today the day I die? Here's how I'm gonna figure this out."
- Completely understand.
- I get it. Every soldier gets it. And so I just put it in there. And he started to understand, as we wrote it, that we were talking about him, but we were talking about war.
- And my experience writing with veterans, and this is true of all veterans, is that every soldier's song is a prayer for peace. Just by talking about the truth of war, you don't have to say the word peace, ever.
- After the very first retreat you did with this organization, this group of songwriters, uh, group of songwriters and with soldiers, as well, do you remember how you felt walking away from that retreat?
- Yeah, it takes a lot. It takes a lot to hear these stories. So many people are so badly wounded, emotionally, spiritually, physically. But also I felt deeply connected to purpose. That I'm doing what God put me here to do, and I'm doing it to the best of my ability. And I've been put in the position to be useful, which is so gratifying.
- Yeah. Do you find a lot of people on that same path along with you, using music and song as their purpose?
- Yeah. Absolutely.
- Absolutely. Every, almost every songwriter that I bring in to my workshops to be guest teachers will say, "I'd be dead without it. Saved my life." It's the thing that, music is my mistress, so I don't have to have an affair. It's the thing that I'm in love with and stay passionate about always.
- Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
- Because it's never done.
- It's always the next blank page.
- And you've got some blank pages you've recently filled, 'cause you're going, it's funny, because like you came to be with us tonight on the night before you go into the studio tomorrow.
- So for your 11th studio album, which I find pretty incredible.
- Me too.
- Yeah, what did you end up putting, what are you gonna record? I was gonna say, "What are you gonna put on this record?"
- Well, I've got a lot of songs. We'll see which ones come alive with at the band. I generally play as a solo artist or a duo with my partner, Jaimee. So I don't have any reference for what they're gonna sound like with the band. So I'll try 'em all out and see. A lot of stuff I've written during the pandemic. So there's quite a bit of grief, and there's also quite a bit of love. We don't grieve unless we love, and love is a big part of the story. And loss, though, I mean, you know, we kicked off the pandemic with John Prine dying. Right before that, my dear friend, the great songwriter, David Olney passed away at a festival we were playing, in January, 2020. Lost John in March, we just lost Nancy Griffith and a whole myriad of other people that I admired deeply, deeply, deeply as songwriters and friends, and also friends, you know, friends that have passed. So I've got a lot of, I guess, you know, mature songs of loss, but also straight up love songs of gratitude for the love in my life and the love that I have had.
- Yeah, don't you think that's something that's actually good that's come outta the pandemic is that I feel like many of us have reconnected with gratitude, you know? I mean, that's the crazy thing about loss is that you do begin to see the things that you should be grateful for.
- Don't you think?
- Yeah. Yeah, Dr. King put that in the speech. He said it's dark enough to see the stars.
- And I think that, you know, there's a song on the record that I'm gonna record and that might even be the title track. When it gets dark enough you start to know what really matters. And I think when we get down into it, what really matters is love, and those we love. And those who love us, that really, really matters.
- When did you start to figure that out for yourself?
- About last week, maybe. I'm still working on it. I'm still figuring it out, but I know that to be true. And I know that I need to continue to deepen my ability to love, and express my love. Say, "I love you," and share it, and be of greater service with the work that I do. 'Cause that is an expression of love. You know, the thing that food and music do have in common, is it's a way to show love. You cook with love.
- Oh, I love that!
- And you can show love with music and song too, yeah.
- Yeah. I love that. So maybe that is the purpose, is to show love, right?
- Ah, yes.
- And connection. And connection, they use music and song that way. You are an artist. You're a troubadour.
- I am a troubadour.
- Yeah, I do love that. I do love that. Mary Gauthier, thanks so much for being here.
- It's a real pleasure talking with you.
- I really appreciate it.
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