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.
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, but she hopes to resume touring later this year. She is also back in the studio, working on her first Christmas album.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
- “Quittin’ Time”, 1990
- “Down at the Twist & Shout”, 1991
- “I Feel Lucky”, 1992
- “Passionate Kisses”, 1992
- “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, 1993
- “Shut Up and Kiss Me”, 1994
- Shooting Straight in the Dark, 1990
- Come On Come On, 1992
- Stones in the Road, 1994
- Time*Sex*Love*, 2001
- ACM Top New Female Vocalist, 1990
- ACM Female Vocalist, 1993
- CMA Female Vocalist, 1992 & 1993
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Down at the Twist & Shout”), 1992
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“I Feel Lucky”), 1993
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Passionate Kisses”), 1994
- Grammy: Best Country Album (Stones in the Road), 1995
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance (“Shut Up and Kiss Me”), 1995
I’ve always been a huge fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter. Her intelligence and thoughtfulness is apparent on her albums, and her deep bluesy voice is easy to listen to. She may not fit the “image” of contemporary radio, but I hope she continues to record for a long time.
And yes, I was a fan long before she came out with this song :)
On “Come On Come On” MCC was able to blend commercial and art brilliantly giving her a album that not only sold well but made many critics’ year end top ten lists. After that though she was never really able to scored any radio successes save for “Shut Up and Kiss Me”.
That song was part of an interesting MCC experience for me at 1995 concert of hers. A guy jumped up on stage while she was singing “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and begged her to kiss him. I was sitting up close enough to see her facial reaction. She looked terrified, but she kept right on singing.
If I was her I probably would have run, or hit him with my guitar, but she proved more courageous. Later she made several jokes at the guy’s expense, but he deserved them. I don’t think there is any place for people jumping up on stage uninvited.
Kevin, I am getting intrigued by your list. I look forward to seeing who you have in the other 28 spots.
Mary has clearly written a lot of great songs for herself and for those artists that have covered her; and for a number of years, she did find favor in the country field. In general, though, her thoughtful style may have been more than the country music industry could handle. Her absence from country radio now is much more country radio’s loss than it is hers.
You have her about where I had her although I’ve been mentally berating myself for having her this high and I had given serious consideration to moving her into the “fellow travelers” category, but her chart success dissuaded me.
I can listen to but a little MCC at a time before I’m ready to move on to something else. I’m not sure why that is, because I like most of her material . Anyway she has been a considerable force in the industry
Unfortunately, that phenomenal CMA performance of “Where Are You Now” that MCC did with Kim Richey and Trisha Yearwood has long since been deleted from Youtube. That’s one of my all-time favorite awards show performances– Trisha just wailed the hell out of a song that should’ve been one of her biggest hits, but the harmonies from MCC and Richey were quite prominent in the sound mix and the effect was just awesome. I remember that, at the time, I wanted the three of them to record a Trio-like project– and I’d still love for that to happen now, even.
Time*Sex*Love is an underrated effort, with some of her most consistently top-shelf writing. And Come On Come On has aged remarkably well– if it wouldn’t have caused Music Row to spontaneously combust, she probably could’ve released even more singles from it. Still, seven hit singles from one album is just a stunning statistic, especially when considering what smart choices MCC has made about choices of singles over the course of her career. Other than Shania Twain, has any other country star even attempted to replicate that feat?
In addition to the ones you’ve already mentioned, my favorite singles of hers would include “You Win Again,” “House of Cards,” “The Better to Dream of You,” and “Almost Home.” It’s also worth mentioning that, like some of Wynonna’s singles of that time, “Passionate Kisses” scored significant crossover airplay, peaking just outside the top 10 at Adult Contemporary radio.
You listed all of my favorite Chapin singles in one fell swoop. I’d add “Why Walk When You Can Fly” and “Going Out Tonight” to that list.
Regarding the seven or more singles thing, Shania pulled seven from The Woman in Me (eight, if you count the expanded “God Bless the Child”) and eleven from Come On Over (twelve counting “When”, which was an international single.) She actually pulled eight from Up!, but three were only international singles (“When You Kiss Me”, “Thank You Baby” and “Ka-Ching”.)
The Dixie Chicks pulled nine singles from “Fly.” I imagine “Home” would’ve been good for six or seven if the incident hadn’t happened.
I can’t think of another country album with seven or more radio singles. Dwight Yoakam’s “If There Was a Way” had six radio singles and a video single, though.
MCC was such a breath of fresh air when she hit the Top 40 country scene with hard hitting songs like “Quittin’ Time” which were as radical as Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” had been years before. “Something of a Dreamer” reminded me of great sixties folk rock songs like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” and was like a musical Rembrandt mixed among Top 40 finger painting exercises. Mary did not have what could be considered a particularly strong voice, and she wasn’t the prettiest gal in country music, but crikey did she and John Jennings make a killer songwriting duo.
As for Paul Dennis only being able to listen to a little MCC at a time, I must point out that “State of The Heart ” is one of the worst sounding country CD’s I’ve ever owned! It sounds like it embodies all the sonic evils of poorly executed digital recording using first generation digital gear, which sucked. The overall sound is consistently thin and harsh and one dimensional, and some of her other early albums also had poor sound quality as well. Some of the songs on “State of the Heart”, such as “This Shirt”, are absolutely brilliant but every time I listen to that album the sound quality issues always interfere with the listening experience. If ever an album cried out to be remastered, its that one….
however light-heartedly poetic your rembrandt-analogy may sound (it made me laughing out loud) – it’s right on the money.
Not to be a smart-ass, but if MCC was “Brown-educated… by the time she picked up her guitar,” how could her HIGH SCHOOL classmates have “threatened to cut her guitar strings”?
Good catch. I didn’t word that well at all. I need to change that. Thanks.
I’ve always loved MCC! To me, her voice isn’t flashy, but calming, in a way. I love her songs and how she sings with passion and emotion, but seems to sing with ease all at the same time.