In a rare coup for a new artist, Mary Chapin Carpenter earned a coveted performance slot on the 1990 show, and she used it to establish her identity as one of country music’s left-of-center talents. She decided to perform the biting “You Don’t Know Me (I’m the Opening Act),” a cutting dismissal of country star power gone awry. It was a risky move, with the less-than-famous artist taking a stab at the music industry who would determine the fate of her career.
Tag Archives: Mary Chapin Carpenter
Few songwriters in Nashville have reached the dizzying heights of Don Schlitz. His mantle full of awards and his prominence on the charts for the better part of three decades has made Schlitz an integral part of country music’s rich heritage of storytelling songs.
Don Schlitz was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. He briefly attended Duke University before moving to Nashville in 1973. After his arrival, Schlitz served as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University, but continued to write songs for five years before his big break. With “The Gambler”, Schlitz’ career finally moved forward. The classic tale of a man learning how to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” enraptured country music audiences upon its release in 1978. The story of a young man and a train-traveling sage earned the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1979 and received the CMA honor for Single of the Year later that year.
The pairing of Don Schlitz with fellow writer Paul Overstreet produced many classic songs of the late 1980s, with the two lyrical masterminds writing “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen” for Randy Travis, and “When You Say Nothing at All” for Keith Whitley (later a hit for Alison Krauss & Union Station). At first, the two men were disappointed that then-newcomer Travis would be the recipient of “On the Other Hand”, intending the song to be recorded by a legend like Haggard or Jones, but Travis’ version impressed them greatly. Travis would soon become a constant source of success in their careers. Both the CMA and the ACM named “On the Other Hand” as Song of the Year in 1986, and “Forever and Ever, Amen” took the trophy at the CMAs in 1987. Schlitz was granted the award of ASCAP Songwriter of the Year an unprecedented four consecutive years from 1988-1991.
I believe the essence of God is reflected in the very best art. By that standard, Stones in the Road has been my gospel, the defining record that I have turned to at every stage of my life and learned something new from it, a truth that had already been revealed to me but I wasn’t ready to understand at an earlier time.
What Carpenter achieves here, through a journey of thirteen songs, is both an honest look at the weaknesses present in the human experience, and a hopeful optimism that they can be transcended. I’m amazed, listening to this album again, just how much of my own worldview has been shaped and later validated by the words of wisdom Carpenter communicated. I truly believe, for example, that “in this world you’ve a soul for a compass and a heart for a pair of wings,” as she implores in the gospel-flavored opening track, “Why Walk When You Can Fly.” She captured an essential truth of a small community in “House of Cards” that verbalized my biggest issue with the suburban area I grew up in: “I grew up in a town like this, you knew the names of every street. On the surface it looked so safe, but it was perilous underneath.”
Her unflinching look at how we fail ourselves and the ones we love cut deep. On “A Keeper For Every Flame,” she tells of a man who “just misses what he can’t forget. It’ s just an empty space where something used to be, now he guards the gate but he’s lost the key, so no one enters but no one leaves.” “The Last Word” never directly refers to the title, obliquely referring to it as “it,” but captures in song the empty victory of winning the battle of words but losing love in the process: “Some words will cut you down like you’re only in the way. Why should I stand this ground?” leads to “Sometimes we’re blinded by the very thing we need to see. I finally realized that you need it more than you need me.”
She once said that her goal is to create music that won’t make Emmylou Harris want to avoid her if she saw her coming down the street. For nearly two decades, Trisha Yearwood has certainly achieved that goal, as she has been the genre’s most consistently excellent recording artist, with a stronger ear for material than any of her contemporaries and nuanced performances that draw on her vocal power without exploiting it.
She was born and raised in Monticello, Georgia, the daughter of a banker father and schoolteacher mother. She was a big fan of Elvis Presley when she was young, but her passion for music really developed when she first heard Linda Ronstadt. She later said that it was the first time she heard a singer with real emotion in her voice, and when she met with her producer years later, she brought Ronstadt’s Prisoner in Disguise album with her and said, “This is the kind of music that I want to make.” Another pivotal moment in her musical development was hearing Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache”, which she later called the first country record that seemed relevant to her generation, rather than being her parents’ country music.
Yearwood loved singing publicly, but she was also sensible, and she pursued a business degree at a junior college. She moved to Nashville to complete her education, studying at Belmont University as a Music Business major. This led to her first industry job, as an internship at MTM Records became a full-time job after graduation. Her vocal talent did not go unnoticed, and she soon became an in-demand demo singer. She built a solid reputation for learning songs quickly, so those that hired her could save on studio time by having her sing the demos. Legend has it that she was so fast that she could double-park her car and be in and out before she’d get a ticket.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
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.
When Time dubbed Lucinda Williams “America’s Greatest Songwriter” in 2001, it wasn’t exactly a news bulletin to those who had followed her career for the previous two decades. She became known as a songwriter first, despite a stunning recorded catalog of her self-written work. But the fledgling Americana format soon became her home, and she returned the favor by becoming its first big star.
She cut her teeth on the folk music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. A native of Louisiana, she spent the late sixties and early seventies playing the local clubs in New Orleans, before moving to Austin, TX in 1974. There was a burgeoning country-rock scene in that city, and she fit in perfectly. She created a demo tape that caught the attention of Folkways Records, who signed her to a deal. In 1978, she released her first album, Ramblin’, which featured her take on various country, folk and blues standards.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the world was introduced to Lucinda Williams the songwriter on a formal basis. Her second album, Happy Woman Blues, was her first to feature self-written material. It was a polite collection that didn’t push any musical boundaries, but it established her as a singer-songwriter. In what would become a maddening trend for her followers, it would take another eight years before she’d release another album, as a development deal with CBS Records ended without any commercial releases, slowing down her momentum as a recording artist.
When Mercury records launched Terri Clark in 1995, they billed her as country music’s first female hat act. Over the next decade, she’d show a lot more staying power than most of her male contemporaries, adapting to the big changes in country music along the way.
Clark grew up in Medicine Hat, a town in Alberta, Canada. Her grandparents had been country stars on the Canadian country music scene, and her mother had sang in local coffeehouses. Terri taught herself to play guitar by listening to her grandparents’ country records. She was inspired to pursue a country career of her own by the female stars of the new traditionalist movement in American country music, particularly the mid-eighties work of Reba McEntire and The Judds.
As soon as she graduated high school in 1987, she headed all the way to Nashville. She headed downtown and walked right into Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge, the legendary Broadway watering hole. Impressed by the young woman’s talent and grit, the managers hired her as a house singer. Clark worked odd jobs around town while moonlighting at the establishment, until a batch of self-written songs caught the attention of Mercury records, and they promptly signed her to a recording contract.
CBS has a tendency to pull clips from this show down as soon as they’re up, so I highly recommend watching it now: the 1993 Women of Country documentary. It traces the history of women in country from the early days all the way through 1992. When it first aired, it was my crash course in the history of the genre, along with a celebration featuring female artists that all rank among my favorites.
The live performances are fantastic. Nearly every major female artist of that time performs: Suzy Bogguss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Lorrie Morgan, Pam Tillis, Tanya Tucker. Michelle Wright, Wynonna and Trisha Yearwood. There are also performances from legends Emmylou Harris and Tammy Wynette, and an all-star finale.
However, the real reason to watch is to see the story of women in country music told by those who lived it, including some who are no longer with us today, like Wynette, June Carter Cash, Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana. The vintage clips of Minnie Pearl, Patsy Cline and others are priceless.
For me, the most powerful moment is Jeannie C. Riley’s heartbreaking story of the beautiful layered dress that she had bought to wear to the 1968 CMA awards, where she would win Single of the Year for “Harper Valley P.T.A.” When she went to pick up her dress, it had been butchered into a miniskirt at the direction of her producer. Even 25 years later, she still remembers the humiliation. It’s really the perfect metaphor for how women had no control over their careers through most of the genre’s history. That’s in Part 10, at the 1:50 mark.
Here’s a list of all the videos. If you’re at all interested in country music’s past, it’s essential viewing.
Part 1: Introduction; performance of by Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Part 2: Spirit of the Mountains; performance by Emmylou Harris.
Part 3: Heartsongs; performance by Trisha Yearwood.
Part 4: Cowgirls in a Man’s World; performance by Suzy Bogguss.
Part 5: Honky Tonk Angels; performance by Pam Tillis.
Part 6: Rockabilly; performance by Tanya Tucker.
Part 7: The Nashville Sound; performance by Lorrie Morgan.
Part 8: The Folk Revival; performance by Kathy Mattea.
Part 9: Heroines; performance by Tammy Wynette.
Part 10: Women Ascending; performance by Michelle Wright.
Part 11: New Country; performance by Patty Loveless.
Part 12: 80’s Ladies; performance by Wynonna.
Part 13: The Future: all-star finale.
We’ve been a bit overwhelmed in country music with patriotic songs since 9/11, and many of them have the stench of expolitation, poor taste, or just plain bad songwriting. In my opinion, the best songs about America tell about Americans, and their experiences. Some of the songs on this list do that; others do talk about America as a whole, but not in your typical flag-waving style. I think they all give Lee Greenwood a run for his money. Here are my 12 favorite songs about America:
12. Sawyer Brown, “Café On The Corner”
The story of 50-year old man who has lost his farm, and is now cleaning tables and washing dishes at a small-town café. The darker side of the American dream, this was released just when the homeless were looking more and more like us. What if you want to work but you can’t find the work? Bashers of welfare and other social safety net programs would do well to listen.
11. Alabama, “Song of the South”
A loving and sentimental celebration of the Depression-era and New Deal south (“We all picked the cotton but we didn’t get rich”) It tells the story of a family that moves from a farm into town, taking advantage of the new federal programs that helped the south so much. It’s ironic that there is such anti-Washington sentiment across the south, since the federal government invested so much to modernize that region and southern states still receive the highest amount of federal aid and benefits, much higher than all other regions of the country.
10. Kathy Mattea, “Beautiful Fool”
A poignant tribute to Martin Luther King that acknowledges the sacrifice he made and the legacy of non-violence that he did not invent, but rather continued: “Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, history repeats itself so nice, consistently we are resistant to love.”
9. Todd Snider, “This Land Is Our Land”
Is this what those crazy liberals are teaching are kids about America? Pretty much. Snider twists the title of a classic folk song to speak in the voice of America’s pioneers – our earliest capitalists. His history is actually pretty accurate – the take-over of land from the Native Americans was not fueled by racism or a concept of manifest destiny – there was just a lot of money to be made. One line: “There’s a lot of land but we need it all, for slave trade and shopping malls.” The narrator makes the “it’s just business” case in a matter-of-fact tone that suggests “hey, we might as well take the land, they’re not getting any real use out of it.” Smart references to contemporary wonders ranging from paper plates and diet pills to pesticides and oil spills, and suggests that even though the land has long been ours, we’re still finding new ways to waste and abuse its resources.
8. Dixie Chicks, “Travelin’ Soldier”
Many suggest that the reason the popularity for our current war is dwindling is that more and more people know somebody who has died, been injured or is currently in danger in Iraq. The most revealing part of this hit is the indifference of the football crowd: “One name read, and nobody really cared, but a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.” It’s easy to be unmoved by the casualties of American soldiers, and Iraqis for that matter, if there’s no personal connection. Perhaps the biggest service of this song is to put a name and face on every soldier through telling us the story of one.
7. Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones In The Road”
Chapin traces how the children who witnessed the cultural revolution grew up and apparently didn’t learn the right lessons. A rebuke of the concept of success that makes people “climb that ladder rung by rung.” She suggests, however, that deep down, we know this is wrong, as evidenced by our encounters with the homeless – “we give a dollar when we pass, and hope our eyes don’t meet.” She wants Americans who lived through those changes to listen to that voice of conscience today and make a difference, but the cynicism of adulthood makes her think it isn’t going to happen.
6. Garth Brooks, “We Shall Be Free”
In a hopefulness that is quintessentially American, Brooks suggests that once we fully embrace the concept of equal rights in America, we will truly be a free nation, and celebrates this as a goal to work towards. A bit controversial back in 1992 for the line “when we’re free to love anyone we choose,” and implicit endorsement of gay rights, he seems to instinctively understand that institutionalized fear of different races, religions and lifestyles restricts the freedom of all of us. He sees the beauty that the framework already exists for America to be the beacon of freedom for the entire world. All we need is the courage and the leadership.
5. Alan Jackson, “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)”
This song captures how Americans across the country all became united for at least a day or two, and how strong the emotional impact of the devastation in New York and Washington was on all Americans. Jackson takes us on a cross-country tour of how Americans from all walks of life responded to the tragedy. Often overlooked is his subtle call for more love in the world as a response to the events. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked him what he means by emphasizing the greatest gift God gave us was love in the chorus, but it suggests that Toby Keith is quite wrong when he says that “everybody” wanted to put a boot in someone’s ass in reponse; we may have been angry Americans, but bloodthirsty is not as universal an emotion as he thinks.
4. Merle Haggard, “Okie From Muskogee”
A classic counter-counterculture hit, this song captures the mid-western resistance to the major social upheavals on the coasts. Characterized as more angry than it really is, Haggard seems to make the point that change is simply unnecessary in Muskogee, where “football is the roughest thing on campus” and “we don’t smoke marijuana” – rather, their illegal drug of choice comes in a jug of White Lightning. Realistically, there probably were many people in Oklahoma smoking pot and “making a party out of lovin’”, but Haggard speaks in the voice of the town, where even if these things do go on behind closed doors, they will not define Muskogee, like the city of San Francisco was defined by the draft-card burning hippie scene.
Certainly, there were people in San Francisco who wished it was more like a small town in Oklahoma, much like many Okies rolled their eyes at Haggard’s white-washed portrait of their towns. The media insistance of diving America into red state vs. blue state is not a new phenomenon, but the way Haggard’s song resonated with Americans from all over proved the dividing lines in America are social and political, not geographical.
3. Johnny Cash, “What Is Truth?”
If Haggard is the dad that doesn’t understand why all the kids are going wild, Cash is the younger uncle who sticks up for them at the dinner table. Cash gives voice to all the frustrations of a generation being sent off to die for a war that isn’t just, and being called cowards by the previous generation who suffered great losses in a war that was very just and necessary. The generation gap is more like a chasm, but Cash tries to bridge it. The most powerful verse captures this struggle:
A boy of three sitting on the floor,
looks up and says, “Daddy, what is war?”
“Why that’s where people fight and die.”
A little boy of three says, “Daddy, why?”
Young man of seventeen in Sunday School
Being taught the Golden Rule
And by the time another year’s gone around
It may be his turn to lay his life down
Can you blame the voice of youth
for asking, “What is truth?”
2. Waylon Jennings, “America”
Forget “God Bless The U.S.A.” This is the 80’s country hit that is the best celebration of America. “I come from down around Tennessee, but the people from California are nice to me; it don’t matter where I may roam, tell your people it’s home sweet home.” He celebrates all of America, his brothers “are all black and white and yellow too.” Who else would have the courage and understanding to celebrate both the soldiers and the draft dodgers in the same verse?
1. Iris Dement, “Wasteland of the Free”
Eerily prescient, this was written in 1995. Every listen gives me chills. Everything that is bringing America down – the corruption of religion by politicians, corporate greed, rampant ignorance, new McCarthyism and war for profit – is exposed in a brilliantly crafted tirade that is overflowing with righteous anger, enough to make you think that if Dement visited the White House, she’d be overturning some tables. Full lyrics here.