‘The Music does the Heavy Lifting’: Mary Gauthier brings soldiers’ songs to the Fayetteville Roots Festival

Mary Gauthier / Photo: Laura Partain

Mary Gauthier’s catalogue contains some of the most searingly honest and deeply confessional songs written in the last 20 years. But when she takes the stage at the Fayetteville Roots Festival this week, her songs will mostly tell other people’s stories.

Gauthier (pronounced “go-SHAY”) plans to focus her performances on songs from her latest album, “Rifles & Rosary Beads,” all 11 of which were co-written by military veterans and active-duty soldiers – men and women – as well as with soldiers’ spouses and partners.

“I feel liberated,” she said in a recent telephone interview from Lyons, Colorado, where she was appearing at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. “It feels good not to have to make a personal appearance. I’m the storyteller this time. I’m not the story.”

What: Mary Gauthier
When: 6:20 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24
Where: Fayetteville Roots Festival Main Stage, Fayetteville Town Center
Tickets: Sold Out

What: Mary Gauthier
When: Midnight Saturday, Aug. 25 (12 a.m. Sunday morning)
Where: Stage 18 – 18 E. Center St., Fayetteville
Tickets: Free admission

Gauthier wrote the songs on the new album through Songwriting With: Soldiers, a non-profit organization founded by singer-songwriter Darden Smith in 2012 that brings together military people and professional songwriters in a tranquil retreat setting. The soldiers tell their stories. The songwriters listen, help mold the stories into lyrics and set them to music. The hope is that the songwriting process will provide a healthy emotional outlet for the soldiers and families, and that the resulting songs will be a source of pride, a step along the path to recovery, a help to others facing similar challenges, and help bridge the gap between the military and civilian worlds.

Many songwriters have written about soldiers and war, but few have written with them. The songs on “Rifles & Rosary Beads” are in Gauthier’s simple and straightforward storytelling style, but the lyrics powerfully reflect on an array of war-related experiences. “Bullet Holes in the Sky” explores the mixed emotions a veteran feels on Veterans Day. “Brothers” tackles the wartime experiences of female soldiers, who too often have to battle for acceptance and respect from their male counterparts. “Still on the Ride” and “Morphine 1-2” deal with survivor’s guilt. “The War after the War” and “Stronger Together” touch on the effects of combat on the families when the soldiers return home.

Since 2014, Gauthier has participated in many Songwriting With: Soldiers retreats and co-written more than 40 songs with soldiers. The organization has become a big part of her professional and personal life. She has remained friends with many of the soldiers she has written with and stays in touch with some almost daily. She twice brought Josh Geartz to Nashville to accompany her on harmonica at the Grand Ole Opry on “Still on the Ride,” a song they wrote together at a retreat in Virginia in 2015.

“I love sitting and listening to the stories, and knowing what a song can do when someone is struggling with trauma that they can’t fully articulate,” Gauthier said. “I know the power of song and what it can do for them. In the environment that Darden [Smith] and Mary [Judd, SW:S co-founder] have created, I just know transformation is possible. They make it so that it becomes absolutely possible.”

Though she never served in the military or suffered war trauma, Gauthier has experienced more than her share of tribulation. Surrendered at an orphanage in New Orleans soon after her birth, she was a year old before she was adopted by a family in Baton Rouge. Her birth mother, whom Gauthier tracked down years later, refused to meet with her. Hooked on drugs and alcohol, Gauthier ran away from home at 15, was in and out of rehab for several years, and spent her 18th birthday in jail in Kansas. She didn’t get sober until she was 27. She was in her mid-30s (“crazy late,” in her words) when she decided to pursue a musical career and 40 when she moved to Nashville. Her first album, “Dixie Kitchen,” was released in 1997.

“I think on a soul level, we recognize each other,” she says of her ability to connect with the soldiers and families she has written with, some of whom are recovering from serious trauma, even suicide attempts. “There’s an ability to sit with pain if you’ve been with that pain. I’ve never been through war trauma, but all the songwriters that Darden brings in are great songwriters because they’ve been through the fire.”

For some soldiers, talking about their experience is a trauma in itself. Thus far, she has not had a problem getting any of her co-writers to open up to her.

“The music does the heavy lifting,” she said. “They start talking. I start fiddling on the guitar and finding the melody that matches the emotion that I feel coming off of their spirit, and it’s like a can opener. It just opens up the story.”