A month later, I’m still trying to live inside the night of Mary Gauthier’s performance in the old church at Corrales, NM. It was a night of unusual clarity in my concert-going life, but a clarity beyond words, except those of Ms. Gauthier herself. So it seems important to remember everything she said. “At the end of Deserve Street is Relapse Alley,” she said, referring to what happens to a drinker when she starts thinking about what she deserves. Soon after, she played “Mercy Now,” offering mercy as a greater, more necessary concept than justice. Such are the places your mind runs, when you’ve followed troubled early years with a remarkable career.
Her best words, though, live in her songs. She’s America’s greatest working songwriter, all too obviously, anytime she’s flexing the poetry of her rhymes with a confidential, conversational delivery. And yet she’ll mock her own songwriting process, as when noting that “Camelot Motel” was born out of the brilliant notion of rhyming “cigarette” with “kitchenette.” The resulting song, however, is genius, less poetically fantastic than Dylan’s “Desolation Row” but with a similar power to illuminate all the local human animals at their most ordinary, miserable moments. She began “Last of the Hobo Kings” with a tale of how she wrote it, the bum’s obituary that first caught her attention and her subsequent research, told over the song’s chords, and for a while it seemed this was the song (the way the story behind In Cold Blood is its own story), that somewhere in the process of gathering ideas for her song, she realized she’d already written it. But no, the actual song was yet to come, and when she played it, it was a great one, a beautiful distillation of her notes. “Drag Queens in Limousines” won her a gay country songwriter of the year award (where, she didn’t say, but she’s right to imagine they invented the category for her), and is among the most memorable “freaks like me” songs ever written. “I Drink” and “Sweet Words” are little formal gambits, but find so much room for detail in simple rhymes. All of these are like Bukowski set to music, in their humor, toughness, and affection.
Just as she offers no fanciful notions of her art, she makes no claims about its proper setting. The church she played in, naked brown walls in the shape of a fallen cross, a starkly lit stage where the torso would be, had the uncanny effect of making the artist physically and emotionally real in a way separate from the fact of her art (think of the way the “Losing My Religion” video brought the men of R.E.M. into full view, as if for the first time), even as the setting made her art, too, so clear and effortless to listen to. (On the one hand, deep windows letting in indirect summer light, radiating calm. On the other hand, Ms. Gauthier vividly present at the front of the room, as if painted on blank stained canvas.) But if the venue seemed to have been chosen as the site of a definitive artist’s showcase, it was clear she hadn’t planned it that way, and had no interest in stealing a sacred value from the church. If anything, she was playfully baffled by its austerity. “Where’s the religion?” she asked, looking around at the bare walls, and when an audience member shouted something about how Jesus never left, she responded, “God is in the art, that’s what I think. Until the money comes.” Gauthier’s doing pretty well, if her string of excellent releases and their positive reception are any indication, but not so well that anyone could accuse God of having left her art.