Mary Gauthier is a fast rising star in what she calls “American music”. She’s been hailed by publications as diverse as No Depression and the New York Times. Even the Reader’s Digest has named her the best about-to-hit country artists.
A latecomer to music, she started writing songs at the age of 35 after going into rehab and managing to stay sober for ten years. That’s no small feat, but then neither is making music this honest and authentic.
She writes with a straight ahead approach that emphasizes the songs themselves and she sings those songs stripped down to the bare essence with her voice right out in front of a basic, no-frills country music backdrop.
Her fourth release, Mercy Now (Lost Highway Records), also her biggest label release to date, sort of sneaks up on you and gets stronger with each subsequent listen. Full of heartbreak and irony, played over acoustic and pedal steel guitar with little dashes of banjo, harmonica and an occasional very Dylan-esque organ, it displays a keen sense for matching words to emotions and emotions to melody and melody to arrangement.
She sets the tone of the album nicely with the very first track, "Falling Out Of Love." Boldly using a prison metaphor . . .
“Falling out of love is a tedious thing,
With its jailhouse smirk and its chain gang swing “
. . . coupled with the chorus – refrain- chant of . . .
“Let me out, set me free”
. . . she could just as easily be pacing the floor of a 6 X 8 cell as driving down the open highway. But you get the idea.
The title cut follows and it’s a deceptively simple little number that expands a message of hope out exponentially from family to church to country to every living thing on the entire planet. It’s a beautiful sentiment, delivered without a trace of pretense, and comes across as a plea for reason that displays sharp skill in touching on the topical issues of the day. Without getting preachy, she skillfully makes the case for abandoning the course toward destruction that the country and, consequently, the entire world, is on:
“My church and my country
Could use a little mercy now.
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That’s gonna take forever to climb out.”
In “Wheel Inside the Wheel,” she conjures up a celestial Mardi Gras parade where:
"Satchmo takes a solo,
And he flashes his million dollar smile.
Marie Laveau promenades with Oscar Wilde."
Half spoken, half sung with a bluesy delivery in a heavy Louisiana drawl, it’s full of evocative imagery. You can almost feel the steamy heat and sense the voodoo in the music.
“I Drink” is another almost perfectly written song with a simple melody that completely catches you off guard. Sung in a voice that immediately recalls Loretta by way of Lucinda Williams – there’s no bitterness and she’s not making any apologies, rather putting it as simply as:
“I know what I am- and I don’t give a damn.”
It’s the very kind of thing that sets her apart from contemporary country music while being more country than anything coming out of Nashville.
The rocking, defiant “It Ain’t The Wind, It’s The Rain” is a promise of bad things to come for a lover who’s jilted her. Loaded with Old Testament-style retribution, she growls out a sentiment as familiar as it is foreboding. And did I mention it rocks?
“Prayer Without Words” – a song about life on the road – demonstrates just how good a writer she really is; clever word-play over guitar, organ, and fiddle drive an up-tempo, Dylan-like arrangement with great lines like:
“Chains on the mast pull the past,
Nothing lasts but nothing ever ends.
I leave town, break new ground, Break down, leave town again”
She closes with “Drop in a Bucket”- another classic-country style song about living with the heartache while time stands still. It’s a timeless sentiment that crosses all lines and serves as a great example of music that’s direct and connects with the listener on a visceral level.
How often do you hear that on a mainstream country record?
There’s only ten songs on this disc, a pretty small selection as far as modern CDs go. But there’s no throw-away filler material here. Ten well-written, well-delivered songs is really not so bad a deal when all the songs are of this caliber – especially when you just want to keep playing it again.
This is what country music should sound like.