A Conversation with Mary Gauthier
Puremusic: Where do we find you today and what's going on in your life lately?
Mary Gauthier: Well, I'm opening for John Prine in San Antonio and Fort Worth. And I just did my own shows, night before last in Austin and Houston last night, so I'll be getting on the road in a little bit and heading over to San Antonio.
PM: It's a beautiful thing, the level of guys that you're opening for, like John Prine, Guy Clark.
MG: Pretty cool, huh?
PM: It's frickin amazing.
PM: And we'll get to that and how that happened. There's so much about your story that's compelling, and we'll try and cover some of the history, such as we know it, in the setup. But let's pick up your saga, if you would, where you decide to close your restaurant and make your first record, Dixie Chicken. How did you get the gumption to make that change in your life?
MG: Well, the first record, I named it after my restaurant which is Dixie Kitchen.
PM: Dixie Kitchen. What did I say?
MG: Dixie Chicken--which everybody does, because I took the name of the restaurant off that Lowell George song.
PM: Yeah, of course.
MG: And it was just a stroke of genius when it occurred to me that I could call a Cajun restaurant Dixie Kitchen. I was listening to that Little Feat song on the radio, and it came through: Dixie Chicken, Dixie Kitchen.
MG: So everybody makes that mistake, and that's reasonable since that's where the name came from.
PM: Was that a good restaurant?
MG: It was a great run. I had a great run there.
PM: How long was that up?
MG: I ran that for about eleven years.
PM: Eleven years, wow.
PM: And how many seats was that?
MG: It was 96 seats.
PM: Oh, my God!
MG: Right next to Berklee Performance Center, Berklee College, the music school in Boston.
PM: Oh, so you had music people galore.
MG: I had musicians in and out every day. And Symphony Hall was down the street, too, so it was definitely a musicians hangout.
PM: Longhairs and jazzbos and every kind of thing.
MG: It was really cool.
PM: Now, as a person who was to eventually change her life and become a professional musician yourself, was that move incubating all along with so many music people walking in and out of your other business?
MG: No, not really. To be perfectly honest, I was pretty oblivious to the--I mean, I was in the kitchen most of the time working like a dog.
PM: Right. You weren't with the people, you were in the back.
MG: I was cooking. And I went to work every day and wore a chef coat, and I was the day chef. So I spent most of my days checking in orders, cooking, placing orders, making sure everything was in running condition, and working the rushes. Even though I was owner of the place, there were so many things to do that I never really had a chance to sit out there and talk to people.
PM: Well, then--
MG: How did it all come to be?
PM: Yeah. How did you make that shift? I mean, that's such a remarkable shift.
MG: It is. It's crazy.
MG: What happened was: opening night of the restaurant, July 13th, 1990, I was arrested for drunk driving. We had a big party, and I got really drunk. I had been struggling with booze and drugs all my life, anyway. And it culminated in being arrested opening night. That was the day I quit drinking. My sobriety coincided with the opening of the restaurant.
It's pretty cool, the way it unfolded. To look back on it now, it just seems so amazing. I thought it was the worst thing that could have ever happened to me, getting arrested on opening night of a restaurant, having my name in the paper and having to be bailed out by my business partners who had just invested a ton of money in the restaurant. I was humiliated and ashamed and guilty as hell.
And I just decided not to fight it anymore. I went in front of the judge and pled guilty and told my partners I had a drinking problem. And I went and got the help that I needed.
That started me on a whole new path--although I didn't feel it happening in me. It took about three years sober before I started writing. But at five years sober, I had written a couple songs. And by seven years sober, I wanted out. I just wanted out of the restaurant. That wasn't my calling. That was something I could do successfully--as a drunk, really. It was my third restaurant. But I couldn't write and drink, which is strange, because so many writers are just the opposite. They couldn't possibly run a business, but they could certainly write and drink.
MG: But for me, it was very different. I just couldn't. I couldn't put my thoughts together. I could multitask like a lunatic, but I couldn't sit down and be still and channel the muse that's required to write the way that I write. So as my soul started to heal, it took a long time, but I was starting to quiet down internally, and that's when I began being able to write. continue