Mary Chapin Carpenter
2008 Edition: #29 (-7)
The list of intelligent female singer-songwriters that have made it big in country music is fairly short. Brown-educated and world-traveled by the time she performed publicly, Mary Chapin Carpenter brought a sophistication to country music that was eagerly embraced by the industry and fans alike.
Carpenter began singing the folks songs that she loved when still in high school. Reportedly, classmates threatened to cut her guitar strings if she sang “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane” one more time. The divorce of her parents contributed to her introversion, and she was a reluctant public performer. After attending Brown, earning a degree in American Civilization, she attempted to pursue her musical ambitions.
Fate intervened when she met John Jennings, who would become her primary collaborator. At the time they met, she still considered music a hobby and was determined to “get a real job.” He pushed her to start performing original material, and she demonstrated her sense of humor early on by dubbing her own publishing company “Get a Real Job.” Her demo caught the attention of Columbia Records, who released it as is in 1987, under the title Hometown Girl. It became a popular record on college radio, and the label felt she could reach a larger audience if she pursued a country career.
They were right. Her second album, State of the Heart, was eagerly embraced by country, spawning the top ten hits “Never Had it So Good” and “Quittin’ Time,” the latter of which earned her a Grammy nomination. Carpenter was named ACM Top New Female Vocalist in 1990, and she received an enthusiastic standing ovation for her snarky performance of “(You Don’t Know Me) I’m the Opening Act” on that fall’s CMA Awards.
Carpenter’s third album, Shooting Straight in the Dark, provided the big breakthrough in 1990, selling platinum thanks to the massive hit “Down at the Twist & Shout.” Carpenter earned her first of five Grammys for the song, beginning a historically unprecedented domination of the Best Female Country Vocal Performance category, which she would win four years in a row.
It was her 1992 album, Come On Come On, that would bring Carpenter to the peak of her popularity. It spawned a stunning seven hit singles, practically unheard of at that time. On its way to sales of five million, it would win Carpenter two more Grammys, make her the first country artist nominated for Grammy’s Record of the Year for a non-crossover hit (“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”), and she won three Female Vocalist awards, two from the CMA and one from the ACM.
Meanwhile, other artists began recording her songs. Cyndi Lauper co-wrote “Sally’s Pigeons” with Carpenter and included it on her 1992 album, while Wynonna scored a big hit with Carpenter’s “Girls With Guitars.” Joan Baez was the first to record “Stones in the Road,” which served as the title cut for Carpenter’s 1994 masterpiece. Upon its release, Stones in the Road spent five weeks at #1, helped greatly by the lead-off No.1 single “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
In the winter of 1995, Carpenter won her fourth Grammy for the song. That same night, the Best Country Album category was reestablished after a thirty-year absence, and Stones in the Road was the winner. Carpenter teared up as she accepted the award, as the highly personal album was cathartic for her. The double-platinum set was the first of hers to include all self-written material.
After “Tender When I Want to Be” from the album went top ten, country radio largely cooled to Carpenter, but record buyers continued to embrace her. The 1996 album A Place in the World went gold, and she had an AC hit with her cover of John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me.” She included that song on her 1998 compilation Party Doll and Other Favorites, another gold album.
She took some long-delayed time off at the end of the nineties and the turn of the new century, but she returned with the ambitious Time*Sex*Love* in 2001, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Recording. She cut the album in London, and received a drop-by visit from Sir George Martin, an enthusiastic Carpenter fan. Country artists continued to record her material, including Terri Clark (“No Fear,” “Last Thing I Wanted,” “To Tell You Everything”) and Trisha Yearwood (“Where are You Now.”) Along with co-writer Kim Richey, Carpenter performed “Where Are You Now” with Trisha Yearwood on the 2000 CMA awards.
In 2004, Carpenter released her final album for Columbia, Between Here and Gone. This time, no radio singles charted, but the album still sold well, reaching the country top ten. Highlights from set included the haunting “Grand Central Station”, told from the perspective of a 9/11 rescue worker being followed home by the ghosts of those who died that day.
Carpenter resurfaced in 2007 with her first independent album, The Calling. It was another top ten album, selling more than 100,000 copies in the first few weeks of release. The album earned a Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy nomination, and proved that Carpenter was still as vibrant a writer as ever, particularly with “On With the Song,” her potent take on the Dixie Chicks scandal. Unfortunately, illness forced her to cancel a summer tour that year, which she later described as helping her to understand “the learning curve of gratitude.”
From 2008 to 2009, Carpenter penned a bi-weekly column for The Washington Times about music and politics. Over the next few years, she continued to record actively, releasing her first Christmas album, Come Darkness, Come Light, as well as three albums of new material: The Age of Miracles (2010), Ashes & Roses (2012), and The Things That We are Made of (2016.) She has also noted her own longevity through two projects that reinterpreted her older material. One reimagined her more cinematic material as being part of a movie score (Songs From the Movie, 2014), and the other simply from the perspective of a much older woman (Sometimes Just the Sky, 2018.)
Collectively, her recent work has moved her much further away from country music and more firmly in the sister territories of folk and Americana.
- Quittin’ Time, 1990
- You Win Again, 1990
- Down at the Twist & Shout, 1991
- I Feel Lucky, 1992
- Passionate Kisses, 1992
- He Thinks He’ll Keep Her, 1993
- I Take My Chances, 1994
- Shut Up and Kiss Me, 1994
- State of the Heart, 1989
- Shooting Straight in the Dark, 1990
- Come On Come On, 1992
- Stones in the Road, 1994
- Time*Sex*Love*, 2001
- The Calling, 2007
- Academy of Country Music Awards
- Top Female Vocalist, 1993
- Top New Female Vocalist, 1990
- Americana Music Honors & Awards
- Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Award, 2010
- Country Music Association Awards
- Female Vocalist of the Year, 1992, 1993
- Grammy Awards
- Best Country Album
- Stones in the Road, 1995
- Best Female Country Vocal Performance
- Down at the Twist & Shout, 1992
- I Feel Lucky, 1993
- Passionate Kisses, 1994
- Shut Up and Kiss Me, 1995
- Best Country Album
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