A John Garfield of the music world.
Mary Gauthier will break your heart and save your soul. She writes edgy tunes that can cut like a knife one minute, and heal the wound the next. The grit in her throat and ache in her voice resonate with the experience of one who has been there and done that, and knows better now. The songs on her latest record speak compassionately of life’s losers, outcasts, and misfits. Displaced New Orleans refugees, hobos, the incarcerated and their families, and such, populate her verses along with those confused by love and the ties that bind. Gauthier endows her characters with depth and dignity as they struggle to improve their situations. She knows that they all have their stories and their reasons, even when they act badly. She doesn’t judge them. She just makes them real.
The different individuals and their personal narratives form the core of Between Daylight and the Dark. The album works as a collection of tales, each distinct and separate from the others, but that share a common thread of deep emotional truth. The listener recognizes the shared human impulse that drives people towards love, and family, and yet somehow paradoxically operates to keep us lonely and alone. “We wanna go home,” one of her protagonists moans, “We can’t find the way.” Gauthier knows we may be lost, but at least we are lost together.
That’s true even of the loners. Consider Steam Train Maury, the title personage from “The Last of the Hobo Kings”. He may have “an aching wanderlust / embedded in his gut,” but he also has a wife named Wanda and true pals like Dandy Dave, Rusty Nails, Sweet Lady Sugar Cane, and the Baloney Kid. Gauthier understands that even the most obstinate freedom lovers among us still value other people. Sure, she’s a romantic, but Gauthier’s also a realist. She knows the days of train freeloaders have ended. “The boxcars have been sealed for years / and trespassers do time / And the railroad yards are razor wired / And hoboing’s a crime,” Gauthier sings without affectation. Still, she remembers those who came before us, like the Hobo King, and honors their memories.
Musically, this is one of those great indefinable records that are part country, part rock, part blues, and part roots music. Gauthier’s frequently compared to artists like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, and indeed her songs would sound right at home on their records, and vice versa. But these musicians are no more interchangeable than James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and John Garfield, to name a similar trio of like artists. They each had something special to offer that expressed their unique individuality. Gauthier’s most distinguishing features include her ability to identify with life’s walking wounded in a voice that simultaneously conveys vulnerability and strength. Her characters may be “broken on the inside,” but they’ve been restored to health just by not giving up. For the most part, they haven’t lost faith in the future, even when dealing with the petty disappointments of everyday life.
The most poignant example of this can be found on “Thanksgiving”, which concerns a family going to visit a loved on at the Tallulah State Prison on the national holiday. The “gravel faced guards” make everyone wait in line, and search-frisk white-haired grammy twice, with and without her winter coat. “When they’re done she wipes their touch off her dress, stands tall and heads in,” Gauthier sings in a proud voice. Grammy knows love isn’t free and easy, but there’s no question in her mind that it’s worth the trouble. Gauthier’s description of Thanksgiving in prison as a family affair restores the humanity to a scene that could fall into pathos or caricature in lesser hands. The incarcerated person is never named, and there is a big crowd at the prison. We learn that those in jail are people that have families that love them. The cruelty of separating people from those they love is made clear without preaching.
Joe Henry’s production is worthy of singling out for praise. He doesn’t crowd the songs with instrumentation. The music is always in the background. Henry knows how to convey a mood or make a comment with a subtle touch. For example, he begins “Snakebit” with just the sound of a shaking tambourine, which evokes a rattlesnake. Later on the same tune, the piano hits an off-key chord as the main character discovers herself with her hand wrapped around a gun, and wonders what she has done. The song goes on as before, just as life goes on. Henry let’s the listener know a rash act has taken place and doesn’t over dramatize it. The song ends on a gentle note that just kind of lingers in the air. The implication is clear that the protagonist’s conscious is clear—at least for now.