Winning five Grammy Awards is impressive enough, but when four of them are wins in consecutive years for Best Female Country Music Performance, that is a unique achievement. Mary Chapin Carpenter accomplished that feat. Yet a careful listening to her output may convince you that her style reaches beyond country.
The New Jersey native, born in 1958, grew up on The Beatles and The Mamas & The Papas. As a teen she learned the songs of Judy Collins and John Denver while testing out her own songwriting wings. Armed with a degree in American civilization from Brown University, she thought of music as a love, not a way to make a living. But her relationship with songwriting kept getting more serious. She signed with Columbia in 1986, and never looked back.
Her debut, Hometown Girl (1987), was produced by John Jennings, whom she’d met in DC during her college years. They would end up making many records together. Right out of the gate, Carpenter showed spectacular taste in session musicians: fiddler Mark O’Connor and guitarist Tony Rice in particular gave this record a sound more folk/bluegrass than country. (Sadly, Rice passed away on Christmas Day, 2020.)
There were no hit singles from Hometown Girl, but that’s not to say there are no great tracks. Along with many songs by Carpenter, the album also includes a cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train.” It’s a thoughtful, original interpretation of the song.
The next album, State of the Heart (1989), is considered more on the country side of things, and its success on the country charts shows that to be true. The addition of accordion and pedal steel contributes to the Nashville sound. The following year, Shooting Straight in the Dark performed even better on the country charts, with the high-energy Cajun-flavored single “Down at the Twist and Shout” hitting the No. 2 spot.
But Carpenter hadn’t left her bluegrass foundation behind. You can hear it in the tightly rhythmic strumming and plucking on her song “Halley Came to Jackson.” O’Connor provides a touching fiddle line.
By the time Come On, Come On was released in 1992, Carpenter was a bona fide country star. Seven of the album’s 12 tracks became hit singles. She and Jennings continued their streak of attracting great musicians to their sessions: the backing vocals personnel list includes Rosanne Cash and the Indigo Girls.
Amid all her success, Carpenter has only had one No. 1 album, 1994’s Stones in the Road. And its biggest single, “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” was her first to make it to the top of the country charts. This time the eclectic and imaginative roster of session players includes Irish tin whistle player and singer Paul Brady, soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and country and blues master Lee Roy Parnell on electric slide guitar. Jennings is still on hand as producer.
The quiet, wistful “The End of My Pirate Days” is one of the album’s lesser-known tracks. It starts simple, with just acoustic guitar and percussion, but grows slowly and steadily in a skillfully crafted arrangement that engulfs Carpenter’s steady voice; she never over-sings.
After A Place in the World (1996), it was another five years before Carpenter released Time* Sex* Love*. One notable thing about this album is the collaborative composer credits on several songs, with Carpenter acknowledging creative input from the likes of Jennings, Gary Burr, and Kim Richey.
Richey has an impressive songwriting resume, boasting recordings of her works by Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, and others. “Swept Away” is the track she co-wrote with Carpenter, a dark, sophisticated heartbreak song using Carpenter’s lower register on the verses and her upper range on the chorus. The dissonances in the guitar part highlight the pain in the lyrics.
Carpenter has never slowed her songwriting or recording productivity, and her fans have always rewarded her consistency. Between Here and Gone came out in 2004, reaching the No. 5 spot on the charts. That was followed by The Calling in 2007, her first album after leaving Columbia Records. By necessity, that meant leaving behind Jennings as her producer. The Calling, released on Zoë Records, was produced by musician and composer Matt Rollings, who would later win a Grammy for his work with Willie Nelson.
This seems to be a deeply empathetic album for Carpenter, judging by the lyrical content of its songs. Take “Houston,” for example, introduced by Rollings at the piano, in which the life experiences of a struggling family are vividly portrayed.
Rollings also co-produced The Age of Miracles with Carpenter in 2010 as well as Ashes and Roses two years later. On the latter, sought-after session drummer Russ Kunkel (he’s worked with Bob Seger, Warren Zevon, Carly Simon, and countless other luminaries) helps bring a solid rock edge to the proceedings.
“I Tried Going West” is a beautiful waltz with a bittersweet lyric in which joy edges out sorrow. The arrangement engulfing its flowing melody uses elements of country, bluegrass, and pop. The electric guitar solos are by Duke Levine.
For the past few years, Carpenter has been releasing her albums through Lambent Light Records. These releases have a rich, intimate sound quality. One of those is The Things That We Are Made Of (2016), produced by six-time Grammy winner Dave Cobb, who also contributes several types of guitars and synthesizers.
As is true with many technical jobs in the arts, it’s the effortless musical production that often has the most work behind it, making it appear easy and off-hand. The song “The Middle Ages” is a good example: It seems simple, with just Carpenter and her guitar, until you realize there’s an intricate synth-based sound environment that has seeped into the background, coloring the mood.
Carpenter’s most recent album came out in August of 2020. Although Ethan Johns produced The Dirt and the Stars, Matt Rollins is back on piano and Hammond organ. Carpenter writes about the personal struggles that come with self-doubt and aging. But she also reaches outside her comfort zone for a timely political piece.
The funky and snide “American Stooge” shows a different side of her, and it’s hard not to wonder what her body of work might be if she’d done more of this type of songwriting throughout her career, commenting on earlier eras of American history. But that’s not how creativity operates; it develops at its own pace.
This is one songwriter who shows no signs of slowing down, so it will be fun to hear what’s next.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mike Evans, cropped to fit format.