“Writing helps me sort out confusion, untangle powerful emotions, and
ward off desperation. It helps me navigate the powerful emotional
weather systems of life.”
– Mary Gauthier, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting
As she has so eloquently accomplished over the past 25 years, acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier has used her art once again to traverse the uncharted waters of the past few years. “I’m the kind of songwriter who writes what I see in the world right now,” she affirms. Thankfully, amid dark storms of pandemic loss, she found and followed the beacon of new love: Her gift to us, the powerful Dark Enough to See the Stars, collects ten sparkling jewels of Gauthier songcraft reflecting both love and loss.
Her eleventh album, Dark Enough to See the Stars, follows the profound antidote to trauma, Rifles & Rosary Beads, her 2018 collaborative work with wounded Iraq war veterans. It garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album, as well as a nomination for Album of the Year by the Americana Music Association. Publication of her first book, the illuminating Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting, in 2021, brought her more praise. Brandi Carlile has said, “Mary’s songwriting speaks to the tender aspects of our humanness. We need her voice in times like these more than we ever have.” The Associated Press called Gauthier “one of the best songwriters of her generation.”
Gauthier’s early work, which began at 35, reflected her newfound sobriety, delving into events from a troubled life, which persisted after she became a renowned chef in Boston. Dark Enough to See the Stars returns Gauthier to the scintillating confessional mode on such albums as her breakthrough release, 2005’s Mercy Now, as well as such ear worms as the hook-laden “Drag Queens in Limousines.” In addition to crafting instantly memorable songs, Gauthier has never shied away from difficult self-exploration, as with 2010’s The Foundling, on which she explored the repercussions of her adoption from a New Orleans orphanage and subsequent search for her birth mother.
On Dark Enough to See the Stars, she mourns recent devastating losses: the deaths of John Prine, David Olney, Nanci Griffith, and her beloved friend Betsy. But she also sings open-heartedly of love. All ten tracks prove Gauthier’s belief, as stated in Saved by a Song, that “songs can bring us a deep understanding of each other and ourselves and open the heart to love.”
Deep emotion resonates throughout Dark Enough to See the Stars. “It kicks off with three love songs,” says Gauthier. “Somewhere along the work I’ve done in therapy through art and 32 years of recovery, I’ve somehow stabilized enough to be in a relationship that works – and I want to express that in these songs.” The joyous triad – the catchy “Fall Apart World,” the lilting ballad “Amsterdam,” and gospel-tinged “Thank God for You” – each punctuated with Danny Mitchell’s evocative keyboards – comes alive with poetic imagery.
“Thank God for You” contrasts her former life – “another junkie jonesing on a Greyhound bus” – with the state of grace she’s found. Lush instrumentation perfectly underpins the anthemic “Fall Apart World,” which Gauthier calls “adult music.” While on a writing sojourn in Key West, she explains, “It’s understanding that things come together and things fall apart. The awareness of that is an opportunity for gratitude. Right now, I’m looking out the window – and I can’t believe I get to be here! I don’t take it for granted for one millisecond!”
Gauthier’s partner, Jaimee Harris, who sings harmony throughout the album, co-wrote the paean to one of Gauthier’s favorite cities. “I have a long history with Amsterdam,” Gauthier recounts. “My first record deal was on a Dutch label, and I tour there regularly, and much of Mercy Now was written at my favorite hotel there.” A canceled flight to Denmark landed Gauthier and Harris in Amsterdam for an unexpected three days during the pandemic. “To return to that hotel and be able to share that with the person I love and show her the city…,” Gauthier pauses. “It’s complicated – because all around the edges was the pandemic. But you’ve got to express your joy – a joy that’s not free from pain. There’s grief all around us, but there’s this ability to still love and still be aware that the sky is beautiful and the hand that I’m holding is filled with love…”
The album’s bittersweet title track, “Dark Enough to See the Stars,” cowritten with Beth Nielsen Chapman, resonates with that very same emotion. “When things get really hard and the walls are closing in and it starts to get dark, you realize what really matters,” Gauthier says. “And what really matters, of course, is love. Even though my friend Betsy is gone, I get to hold on to her love. And I get to hold on to the love that John Prine showed me, and Nanci Griffith and David Olney. It occurred to me while working on the title track that love didn’t die with them. That was a gift that was given to me that I get to keep.”
As on the memory-rich track, “The Meadow,” Fats Kaplin’s haunting pedal steel guitar expresses the sonics of fleeting time, a theme Gauthier explores on one of the first songs written for the album, back in 2019. After performing in Albany, New York, the solitary troubadour found herself yearning for her newly discovered soulmate’s “candlestick fingers on my skin”: The poignant “About Time” documents that lonesome highway, while the singalong waltz “Truckers and Troubadours” acknowledges musical vagabonds’ kinship with long-haulers; in fact, Gauthier and co-writer Darden Smith collaborated with Paul “Long Haul” Marhoefer on the ear-catching lyrics. “Paul said that when Darden and I get together and start talking,” says Gauthier, “we sound like two truck drivers.”
Finally, Dark Enough to See the Stars bids farewell to Gauthier’s tragically departed friends: “Where Are You Now” paints an autumnal picture of the trails where she and Betsy roamed; “How Could You Be Gone” expresses in detail the disbelief inherent in our goodbyes; and “Til I See You Again” offers a prayer “to all those I hope to reunite with,” says Gauthier.
As throughout Dark Enough to See the Stars, all three compositions exemplify Mary Gauthier’s songwriting brilliance: They offer beauty in sorrow, healing in loss, and a perspective only an artist of uncommon generosity can give. Thank God for Mary Gauthier.
About Jaimee Harris
Jaimee Harris turned 30 during the pandemic. It’s a milestone that is a rite of passage even during normal times. But for this Texas-born singer-songwriter, it came in the midst of one of the strangest and most tumultuous periods in American history. When the world stopped during lockdown, Harris, like many others, found herself gazing back into the past, ruminating on the nature of her hometown and family origins, and reckoning with their imprint on her. The term ‘nostalgia’ derives from the Greek words nostos (return) and algos (pain), and if Harris’s Boomerang Town can be regarded as a nostalgic album, it is only nostalgic in the sense that the longing for home is a desire to return to the past and heal old wounds.
“I’m at an age where I’m wrestling with trying to understand the nature of my family,” Harris says. “There’s been suicide, suicide ideation, and there’s certainly been addiction all through my family. My dad’s father died of suicide when he was 25 and I was 5. I couldn’t imagine not having my dad right now.”
Harris’s sophomore effort, Boomerang Town marks a bold step forward for this country-folk-leaning singer-songwriter. It is an arresting, ambitious song-cycle that explores the generational arc of family, the stranglehold of addiction, and the fragile ties that bind us together as Americans.
For Harris, the album began gestating around 2016, a time of great loss for many in the Americana community, with the songwriter losing several musicians close to her. The shift in the nation’s political landscape had ushered in a new level of polarization that saw whole swaths of cultural life being demonized. For someone who grew up in a small town outside of Waco, Harris believed the values instilled in her by her parents were not entirely in line with how many on the left were viewing — and vilifying — Christians, citing them as responsible for the new change in leadership. As a person in recovery, Harris has had to re-evaluate her own connection to faith and find strength in a higher power (“Though he’s not necessarily a blue-eyed Jesus,” she laughs), though she certainly knows what it’s like to “be told how to vote” in a Southern church setting.
It was from the intersection of these social, personal, and political currents the album was born. And while much of the material on Boomerang Town was inspired by personal experience, the songs on this collection are far from autobiographical xeroxed copies. More than anything, they come from a place of emotional truth.
Boomerang Town traces the fortunes of a host of characters who live on the knife’s edge between hope and despair. The title track, whose sound recalls the best of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ’90s work, features a young couple from a small-town working dead-end jobs who get “knocked up” and have their dreams put on hold. It is a portrait of rural desperation and the restless search for salvation against long odds. “This is what it’s like to be a part of the post- “‘Born To Run’ Generation,” Harris quips. “Springsteen’s generation had somewhere to run to. I’m not so sure mine does.” For the characters in these songs, escape isn’t always a matter of geographical distance.
“I tried a lot of perspectives ,” Harris says about writing the title track. “My parents are high-school sweethearts and I was an accident and they’re still happily married. I worked at Wal-Mart when I was 19. I reflected on this guy who was the brother of a good friend of mine. He didn’t drop out. He knocked up his girlfriend and went into the military. Certainly is a combination of me and not me. It was me thinking about what might have gone differently for my parents, who are still in Waco and own a business there.”
Harris’s father, whom she counts as a big supporter and responsible for much of her musical education, took her to the first Austin City Limits Music Festival, where she had the life-changing, Eureka moment of seeing Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, and Buddy and Julie Miller perform on stage at the same time. It was then the young Harris knew what she had to do. She had found her ticket out.
Harris continues: “Why was I able to get out of my boomerang town? Why are others stuck there, longing to leave but unable to find their way out? Writing these songs, bringing these narrators to life, brought me closer to the answers,” she says.
Themes of grief and addiction permeate other sections of the record. “How Could You Be Gone,” which Harris wrote with her partner, the venerable folk songwriter Mary Gauthier, reflects on the passing of a close friend during the pandemic, as well as the 2017 death of Harris’s mentor and compadre Jimmy LaFave, a long-time fixture on the Americana scene who succumbed to cancer. “It’s been my experience that grief operates on its own timeline,” Harris says. “I wanted this track to build and repeat with intensity to mirror the experience of relentless grief.” Another song, “Fall (Devin’s Song),” is about a former childhood classmate of Harris’s who was accidentally shot and killed in the sixth grade. The song was inspired by a series of “In Memoriam” pieces the boy’s mother wrote to the local paper, and the song serves as a tribute to both of them, as well as a commentary on the timeless nature of grief.
One of the album’s standout tracks is the lilting, Irish-influenced “The Fair And Dark Haired Lad,” a Chicks type-number that grapples with the seductive nature of alcohol. Another tune that deals with the demon rum, “Sam’s,” is far more dirge-like, and its dark, circular melody mirrors the claustrophobia and sense of trapping that comes with the onset of addiction and mental collapse.
Boomerang Town is not entirely a lament, however, with songs like “Love is Gonna Come Again” and the wistful “Missing Someone” shining with hope in the face of the darkness. For this is a record that understands that love and grief are two sides of the same coin. It also announces the arrival of a great new songwriter on the scene.
“My goal is to just write the best possible song I can write,” Harris says, “and I wanted to have ten songs that made sense together sonically. I still believe in the album format, and I wanted to lay the groundwork as a solid songwriter.” On Boomerang Town, Jaimee Harris, who was able to find her way out — unlike so many others — has accomplished all that, and much more.