The Foundling

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Article Reviews

Mary Gauthier (Razor and Tie, 2010)

Singer-songwriter extraordinaire Mary Gauthier (“go-shay”) has a voice like a rusty string on a slide guitar. But that never held Bob Dylan back, and in Gauthier’s musical vision, pretty is hardly the point.

That same jarring, unvarnished quality runs through her lyrics. A recovering alcoholic, early in her career Gauthier laid her disease on the line with a song that proclaimed, “fish swim, birds fly . . . I drink.”

At the center of many of Gauthier’s best songs is her harrowing life story, a tale that makes some recent recovery memoirs sound like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. At 15 she stole the family car, ran away, and spent the next 20 years drunk, high, and/or institutionalized. But on this new album she cuts to the painful, bleeding core of her biography and turns it into a jewel of poetic narrative, with accordions and fiddles on the side.

Gauthier was the foundling of the album’s title. As a newborn she was left on the steps of St. Vincent’s Infants Home in New Orleans to be adopted into a family dominated by a raging alcoholic father.

But she says a sense of not-belonging dogged her from childhood and well into her sober years. Recently she tracked down her birth mother and called her up, receiving a painful brush-off that is transcribed in The Foundling’s central song, “March 11, 1962” (Gauthier’s birthdate).  

Gauthier’s artistic template for The Foundling was Willie Nelson’s 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger. Like that classic, The Foundling features consistent instrumentation and repeated musical themes (including two “Interludes” and a “Coda”) that lend coherence to the narrative. It suffers for the lack of Nelson’s pipes and mad-genius guitar work, but The Foundling’s emotional wallop far outstrips the model.

But Gauthier’s tale is never played for bathos. Indeed, her matter-of-fact, off-handed restraint, which makes the tragedy so disturbing, also renders credible “The Orphan King’s” affirmation: “I still believe in love.”    

This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 8, page 42).