Since her second offering, the self-issued Drag Queens in Limousines in 1999, and continuing through the stellar Filth & Fire in 2002, Texas singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier has quietly and consistently raised the aesthetic bar for herself. She has been favorably (and accurately) compared to Townes Van Zandt for her literate American gothic songs about wasted lives, desolate characters who roam the highways like ghosts, shattered dreams, and frustrated expectations. But Gauthier never exploits her characters; she views them with a piercing tenderness and empathy, painting them with dignity and humanity. On Mercy Now, Gauthier digs a little deeper; she comes down on the side of the song itself. The protagonists whose tales she relates are given rich musical voices, adding depth, dimension, and flesh and blood as related by her keen-eyed observations, unflinching poetic language, and willingness to be subtle and not intrude. Her razor-wire, weatherbeaten, loving kindness digs deep as it pleads for release on "Falling Out of Love," which opens the record. With her acoustic guitar in minor mode, a deep, lonesome harmonica, hollow, sparse percussion, and producer Gurf Morlix's trademark slow-wrangle slide, she sings and even becomes the voice of the broken-hearted blues. There is no sentimentality in her view, just the taut edginess that is so wearying and anxious about trying to get past the addiction to a memory seared with every breath. On the title track, Gauthier's guitar and voice offer a gritty, moving meditation on compassion, invoking mercy for all those who suffer, from family to church and country to those who are nameless and faceless. There is nothing facile in Gauthier's words, nothing remotely trite or ordinary about the weariness in the grain of her voice, as Brian Standefer's cello and Morlix's lap steel fill the center and carry the message to the heavens humbly, slowly, purposefully. "Wheel Inside the Wheel," written for the late Dave Carter, is a spooky rolling and choogling banjo/guitar extravaganza. It features characters from Gauthier's New Orleans Mardis Gras: Louis Armstrong, Marie Laveau, the Krewes, etc. -- all of them metaphors for the transmigration of souls. Her cover of Harlan Howard's "Just Say She's a Rhymer" is as back porch as it gets, dressed in fiddle, steel, strummed six-strings, and plodding bass. Her delivery comes out of time and space and rests fully in this moment. Gauthier inhabits the song as if it were her own. The set closes with the punchy, electric "It Ain't the Wind, It's the Rain." A Hammond B-3 carries the tune from underneath as stinging guitars, throbbing basslines, and Gauthier's clear, prophetic voice rings over it all. What a finish; what a record. Mercy Now cuts deep into the heart -- it showcases not only Gauthier's prowess with the poetry and craft of song, but her humility and wisdom as she digs further into its chamber of secrets.