Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ain't Nothing You Can Do: Mary Gauthier, Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams

In the mid 80s three of the strongest women’s voices in country music, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, came together in an album called Trio. In creating the album, the producers managed to showcase the multiple ways in which women could sing country music from the slick Nashville sound (Dolly) to the new (as yet unnamed) (Emmylou) and laid back southern California soft-rock/country (Linda).

The album worked beautifully with each lady alternating between lead and backup vocals on a set made up of mainly straight ahead country songs perfectly suited to their beautiful three part harmonies.

Although all three women are still active (Emmylou’s stature as the Grand Dame of all female country artists is now beyond dispute) the landscape has changed dramatically. A new crop of women singers all drawing on the country-music tradition are making exhilarating music by setting the artistic bar high and keeping the song-writing agenda urgent. Their themes and subject matter touch the eternals of all human songs: love, relationships, loss and salvation.  But their treatment of them is raw, skeptical, harrowing and angry.

It makes the songs of Trio, gorgeous gems each, appear quaint and slightly naïve.

The current Queens of Country are Mary Gauthier, Lucinda Williams and Iris Dement and for my money it is hard to find a more compelling trio of voices than these. In any genre. Period.

Mary Gauthier was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to a mother she never knew and was adopted by an Italian Catholic couple in Thibodaux, Louisiana. At age 15, she ran away from home, and spent the next several years in drug rehabilitation, halfway houses, and living with friends; she spent her 18th birthday in a jail cell. Struggling to deal with being adopted and her sexuality, she used drugs and alcohol. These experiences provided fodder for her songwriting later on. Spurred on by friends, she enrolled at Louisiana State University as a philosophy major, dropping out during her senior year. After attending the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, she opened a Cajun restaurant in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, Dixie Kitchen (also the eponymous title of her first album). Mary ran, and cooked at, the restaurant for eleven years. She was arrested for drunk driving opening night, July 12, 1990, and has been sober ever since. After achieving sobriety, she was driven to dedicate herself full-time to songwriting, and embarked upon a career in music. She wrote her first song at age 35. (Wikipedia)

Gauthier’s songs are as luminous and revealing as crystal. In most, you catch a glimpse of the rotten cards she was dealt and the dead end choices she made.  Her confessional I Drink is stark and quite simply one of the most brilliant songs in American music.

He'd get home at 5:30, fix his drink
And sit down in his chair
Pick a fight with mama
Complain about us kids getting in his hair
At night he'd sit alone and smoke
I'd see his frown behind his lighter's flame
Now that same frown's in my mirror
I got my daddy's blood inside my veins

Fish swim
Birds fly
Daddies yell
Mamas cry
Old men
Sit and think
I drink

Lucinda Williams, was also a Louisanan, though from the opposite end of the social ladder than Mary. Her father was a college professor and Lucinda was well read and well travelled, including overseas. Her career started in the late 1970s but she didn’t gain recognition beyond a cult of avid fans and critics until twenty years passed and the release of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road in 1998. Since then she has burned across the popular music scene with a sound that mixes country, blues, folk and ample lashings of loud guitar based rock ‘n roll. She is as capable of singing honkytonk as convincingly as covers of AC / DC. Her scrappy voice has earned her the accursed title “the female Bob Dylan” and though that could be disputed her song writing is characterised by anger and a confronting emotional honesty that is rarely heard in women singers. At the same time, she writes some of the most beautiful, vulnerable lyrics and melodies like this one called Overtime.

That's what they all tell me
That's what they say to me
Your blue eyes, your black eyelashes
The way you looked at life
In your funny way
I guess out of the blue
You won't cross my mind
And I'll get over you

Your pale skin, your sexy crooked teeth
The trouble you'd get in
In your clumsy way
I guess one afternoon
You won't cross my mind
And I'll get over you

I guess out of the blue
You won't cross my mind
And I'll get over you

Iris Dement is a self-described ‘agnostic Christian’ who was raised in a large Pentacostal family from Arkansas. She learned how to sing and play guitar from her mother and has one of the quirkiest but freshest voices in American popular music. Of the three current Sultanas she is the most firmly rooted in the country music garden but Iris is not content to singing and writing solely in the artistic limits of the genre. She can rock with the King of Honkytonk, Delbert McClinton, or share the song with folk icon, John Prine without losing her unique bearings. And she’s not afraid of making a statement either.

Living in the wasteland of the free...

We got preachers dealing in politics and diamond mines

and their speech is growing increasingly unkind

They say they are Christ's disciples

but they don't look like Jesus to me

and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We got politicians running races on corporate cash

Now don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them peoples' ass

You may call me old-fashioned

but that don't fit my picture of a true democracy

and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We got CEO's making two hundred times the workers' pay

but they'll fight like hell against raising the minimum wage

and If you don't like it, mister, they'll ship your job

to some third-world country 'cross the sea

and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

Living in the wasteland of the free

where the poor have now become the enemy

Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones

Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy

Living in the wasteland of the free

A thrilling Washerman’s Dog presentation tonight for your auditory pleasure!

          01 Right In Time [Lucinda]
02 Blue [Lucinda]
03 I Drink [Mary]
04 Heaven Blues [Lucinda]
05 Let the Mystery Be [Iris]
06 Karla Faye [Mary]
07 Wasteland Of The Free [Iris]
08 Jailhouse Tears [Lucinda]
09 Higher Ground [Iris]
10 Come On [Lucinda]
11 Snakebit [Mary]
12 These Hills [Iris]
13 Different Kind of Gone [Mary]
14 Trouble (Duet with Iris and Delbert McClinton)
15 Overtime [Lucinda]
16 Lucky Stars [Mary]
17 Hard Times Killing Floor Blues [Lucinda Williams]
18 Mama's Opry [Iris]
19 Can't Find The Way [Mary]
20 Walkin' Home [Iris]
21 Evangeline [Mary]
22 It's A Long Way To The Top [Lucinda]



gilhodges said...

The holy trinity!

Lucinda ÷ Iris = Mary

ajnabi said...

Gil, that's a nice equation.

Anonymous said...

thank you from Greece!!!