Singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier has performed on many stages throughout her career, but at 7 p.m. on Sunday, she will take the her show underground – literally – for the first time when she performs at The Caverns in Pelham as part of “Bluegrass Underground,” a musical adventure series that airs on PBS networks across the country.
The Tullahoma News caught up with Gauthier just before her big performance to talk about playing “Bluegrass Underground” for the first time and her life-changing experience working with military veterans.
As Gauthier prepares for her “Bluegrass Underground” performance, she said she is looking forward to playing in such a unique venue.
“This will be first performance with the ‘Bluegrass Underground’ and I’m very excited about it. I’ve been watching it for years, so it’s great to be a part of it,” she said.
When asked if she is nervous about performing in such a different atmosphere from a traditional concert stage, Gauthier said she excited about the experience.
“I wouldn’t call it nerves,” she said. “Even with the venue such as this, there is an energy I get when I’m on the side of the stage right before I go on. It’s an excitement more than nerves. Performance time is like the most important time of the day. It’s my most important time of the day.”
For her performance, Gauthier said she will playing songs from a project she has been working on and one that is close to her heart.
“I’m going to bring a couple players with me who have played on the record,” she said. “I’m going to play a few songs from a back catalog and then segue pretty quickly to what I’ve been doing the last little bit, which are songs that I have co-written with members of the military and their spouses. This is really what’s important to me right now. I’ve been privileged to work with the vets and telling their stories.”
Telling the stories of American veterans and their spouses is the theme behind her latest album, “Rifles and Rosary Beads.”
For the album, Gauthier worked with the nonprofit group Songwriting with Soldiers.
“Songwriting with Soldiers is a small nonprofit that started six years ago out of Austin, Texas,” Gauthier said. “The idea sort of happened organically. The founder of the organization [Dardin Smith] co-wrote with a soldier and found that the song was so good, he decided that he wanted to do it again.”
She said the organization gathers songwriters and veterans along with veterans’ spouses for a weekend retreat of songwriting and healing.
“The way it works is that you go to a retreat center. There are several all over the country that hosts songwriters and veterans and their spouses,” she said. “The retreat includes four master songwriters, songwriters who have been at for 20 years or more, and usually six to 10 veterans.
“We go in on a Friday, have a dinner, and meet each other. Songwriters do a little concert, so the vets can see what we do and pick the writer that they feel the closest to, the one that they resonate with. Saturday morning, we get paired up with our veteran or our veteran’s spouse. We find a quiet place and we write a song with them. Saturday afternoon, we do it again with a different person. We do it one more time Sunday morning. By that time, we have 11 or more songs. Sunday afternoon, we have a concert for all the new songs that are written.”
Gauthier said the songs are written with respect and love.
“The songs are written with the veterans’ words and it’s their stories,” she said. “We bear witness and non-judgment and listen. Soldiers do talk, but you have to create a safe space for them to talk in. They are treated with respect. There is a joy that comes from really connecting and a joy that comes from the process.”
While transformative for the veterans, Gauthier said the experience is also life-changing for the songwriters.
“The veterans say it’s transformative for them and I know it has been for me,” she said. “One of the byproducts of these retreats in to reconnect with purpose. If you live in Nashville, it’s a company town, and you end up with this haze of corporate monetization of music. You start getting submerged in the culture of music as creating a product to sell to a marketplace through a multi-national corporation. This whole process removes the heart and soul of the higher purpose of the art. So, with the veterans, oftentimes the songwriters are reintroduced to why they got into songwriting in the first place. You see the light come back on into their eyes.”
For her Sunday performance at The Caverns, Gauthier said she hopes to communicate that same life-changing feeling to the audience.
“You know, it’s a bluegrass gig, but I’m really a folk singer,” she said. “Part of my calling and what I do and what I consider important in my art is to tell stories. I’m not going to just be singing songs, but there is a story behind these songs. The stories are pretty much an introduction to the veteran or to the spouses who I co-wrote them with. These amazing Americans who served with such nobility and who came home with stories that are hard to hear. It’s very difficult to go to war and come back without drama. The stories are universal and timeless and transcend the American soldier story. I privileged to be able to tell these stories. It’s an absolute honor.”