By the time Mary Gauthier (pronounced "Go-Shay") finished her first song, Mozart was already dead. Actually, Mozart had been in his grave since the late 18th century. The point is, as a novice musician at 35--the age at which the great composer passed away--Gauthier was a late-bloomer.

"For a long time, I didn't write at all, because Bob Dylan existed," says the singer-songwriter, who opens for Nanci Griffith at the Moore Sunday evening, February 20. "But if you're going to be at all creative, eventually you've got to say, God created Dylan to do Dylan songs. That doesn't have to render me mute. I have my own potential, and I can't let intimidation be an excuse not to see what my gift is."

Although the major musical icons--Dylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen--have always been her touchstones, Gauthier, 42, was preoccupied with other matters until the late '90s. Her biography reads like a treatment for an ABC Afterschool Special: foster homes; car theft; drug addiction; philosophy studies; opening her own restaurant; and, eventually, sobriety.

She's made up for lost time admirably, releasing three critically acclaimed indie releases--Dixie Kitchen (1997), Drag Queens in Limousines (1999), and Filth & Fire (2002)--before signing with Lost Highway for her fourth full-length, Mercy Now. Working with producer (and longtime Lucinda Williams sideman) Gurf Morlix, Gauthier has crafted nine originals, plus a cover of Fred Eaglesmith's "Your Sister Cried," that are a testament to the axiom less is more.

For starters, there's Gauthier's voice, a dry, husky rasp that switches easily from tough to tender. On the opening cut, "Falling Out of Love," she depicts the details of a sleazy motel with hard-boiled acuity, yet on the title tune, she makes a compelling plea for sympathizing with a mélange of storied miscreants (including leaders of church and state) and mere mortals.

"I had to learn to not push, because I'd go flat," she admits. "I had to quit trying to sing, and just sing. You can tell when actors are trying to act, and what you see is the performance, not the character. So I had to learn what I'm capable of, and work within my limitations. I've become sort of a song stylist."

Lyrically, she can turn the most mundane details, like heating instructions for a microwave dinner, into poetry. Elsewhere, she paints vivid tableaus. On the Dixieland-cum-Leonard Cohen number "Wheel Inside a Wheel," circus fat ladies, Oscar Wilde, and drag queens prance side-by-side.

Gauthier credits her way with words to her Louisiana roots. "There's something about the way stories are told in Southern families: the eye for detail, a tendency toward exaggeration, punch lines. Someone once said, 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.' That's a Southern virtue. Life has traditionally been so difficult for so many Southerners that storytelling became an art, a way of relieving monotony, and maybe finding humor in the pain." You'll be hard-pressed to find a better example of that philosophy in action than Mercy Now.

kurt@thestranger.com