The Grammy-nominated album Rifles & Rosary Beads (In the Black/Thirty Tigers) by lesbian singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier is a product of Gauthier’s association with Darden Smith’s nonprofit organization Songwriting with Soldiers, a PBS television special in which soldiers team up with professional songwriters for a night of music. For Gauthier’s album, she collaborated with male and female soldiers for a majority of the tracks. Two of the songs, including the devastating “The War after the War” were written by military wives whose soldier husbands returned from the battlefield wounded. Gauthier, whom I’ve always described as a sort of queer Lucinda Williams, has a history of bringing listeners to tears (check out 2010’s The Foundling), but Rifles & Rosary Beads takes that ability to a whole new level. Mary was kind enough to take time out of her tour and writing schedule to answer a few questions for OutSmart.
Gregg Shapiro: Mary, I’d like to begin by congratulating you on your Grammy Award nomination for your brilliant 2018 album Rifles & Rosary Beads. What does such an honor mean to you?
Mary Gauthier: I don’t know! It always is nice to be singled out for an honor like that. Mostly, it means that I have to keep going to work every day. There’s no magic bullet that changes my job. I just have to keep going to work and doing what I do. Trying to find the next story that’s important for me to tell.
What can you tell me about the genesis of the Rifles & Rosary Beads project?
It’s a collection of songs co-written with members of the military and their families. The songs are true stories that have been lived by people that I’ve sat down and written with. I listen to their stories and bear witness to what they’re going through, and turn their life into a song.
Do you think your history of musical collaboration led you to this, in a way?
Yes, I do. I think my own personal story helped me be able to understand some of what they’re going through. There’s definitely a good match [between] me and people who have struggled. I’m able to sit in the story and listen without being afraid, and bear witness without judging.
After creating a project such as Rifles & Rosary Beads, with its powerful images and message, how does it make you feel, as both an artist and a citizen, that we are once again on the precipice of wars with Iran and North Korea?
To stay out of the politics of it, I would say there is a tremendous burden on those who serve. We have a responsibility to be very careful before we send them into yet another endless conflict that we’re not even sure why we’re fighting. Less than one percent of our population serves, and those people are carrying the weight for all of us, whether we acknowledge it, understand it, or even realize it. Having listened to them and sat with them over the last seven years, and those who are still in active duty, we should think long and hard before getting embroiled in another nightmare scenario that has no endgame. We should never go in unless we have a plan on how to get out. That didn’t happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re still there. I’ve seen the human cost on our women and our men, not to mention what’s happened to people in Iraq and Afghanistan—the civilians and their children. It’s a very somber decision to go to war, and I take it very seriously.
In addition to being a songwriter, you have also made a name for yourself as a teacher by leading popular songwriting workshops. What do you like best about the workshop experience?
I love talking about songwriting. I love talking about songwriting with songwriters that are committed to learning the art and the craft. I’m a huge believer in this work as a way of telling important stories that need to be told. I like working with writers who want to get in there and really work and learn and become better at what they do. As a teacher, it brings me great joy to be able to do that.
With all of the ongoing favorable attention showered on Rifles & Rosary Beads, have you had time to think about what you might do for your next album?
No, I’m in the middle of writing a book right now. That has my full attention. It’s called Saved by a Song. Musically, I really don’t know what’s next. I do want to get this book moved along. I’m writing it for St. Martin’s Press. In February, I’m just going to be in the writing chair getting this book as far along as I can get it. When I turn in that first draft, I’m sure I’ll start thinking about where I need to be, musically.
A little over 20 years ago, you released your second album, Drag Queens in Limousines. It was at a time when there weren’t a lot of people singing about or paying tribute to drag queens, let alone making them part of the title of an album. Fast-forward to today, when RuPaul’s Drag Race is one of the most popular shows on TV, especially with straight women. Do you still have drag queens in your life, especially the kind you sang about taking you in when you needed help?
Life has changed. I’m 58 years old. I don’t live at the bars like I used to. I’m a folk singer going from town to town. But I’ve always had a strong pull toward outsiders and folks who live outside of what’s considered normal. Creative types. The rebels and misfits. People who push culture forward have always been of interest to me. When I was young, I spent a huge amount of time in the gay bars. I got sober when I was 27. I’ll be 30 years sober this year. The reason I go to bars now is for music. I haven’t been spending much time in the clubs or going to drag shows or doing that thing that I used to. But I lived it for a long time, and I’ve always loved genderqueers and people who have pushed the envelope. It’s always been interesting to me. I’ve always rooted for those brave souls that get up there and do it their way and do it different. My heart is always with those people.
Bill Lee, the governor of Tennessee, is going to be signing an anti-LGBTQ adoption bill into law. As both a Nashville resident and an adoptee, please say something about that.
I hope that he doesn’t! It’s a very ill-informed and misunderstood decision that he’s making. There’s a lot of pressure on him from conservative churches who don’t understand who we are, and don’t know what incredible parents we would make. A gay person, or a gay married couple who wants to adopt, have put considerable thought into [becoming parents]. It’s a very planned and well-thought-out decision, and they should be treated like any other couple in the adoption process. Vetted and chosen based on merit. But they should never, ever be excluded because they’re gay. That’s just prejudice, and it’s wrong.
For more information about Mary Gauthier, visit marygauthier.com.
This article appears in the February 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.