Every #1 Single of the Nineties: Mary Chapin Carpenter, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”

“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Written by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Don Schlitz

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

March 18, 1994

An award-winning multi-platinum selling superstar finally gets a No. 1 record.

The Road to No. 1

By the time radio gave her a No. 1 single, Mary Chapin Carpenter was country music’s most surprising superstar.  A northeastern folkie with a history degree from Brown University, Carpenter was a fixture on the Washington D.C. music scene, where she began working with longtime collaborator John Jennings.  As she transitioned from covers to original material, she caught the attention of Columbia Records.  Her 1987 debut album Hometown Girl was largely promoted as a folk album, but by her second project, State of the Heart, she was recording in Nashville and charting country hits.

State of the Heart produced two top ten hits, “Never Had it So Good” and the Grammy-nominated “Quittin’ Time.”  Her next album, Shooting Straight in the Dark, contained the top five hit “Down at the Twist and Shout,” which won her the first of five Grammy Awards won over four years.  By the time Come On Come On hit shelves, she was a country radio staple and an awards show darling.  She was named the 1992 and 1993 CMA Female Vocalist of the Year and the 1993 ACM Top Female Vocalist. She also won Grammys for two of this album’s top five singles – “I Feel Lucky” and “Passionate Kisses” – and the album was certified double platinum by the time its sixth single became her first No. 1 single.

The No. 1 

“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” was one of Chapin’s biggest hits, and the only country record to be nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy in the nineties without earning crossover airplay.  So it may be surprising that it was the sixth single released from the album, but this was apparently because the label felt it was a risky record to release while “Family Values” were being hotly debated in the country.

Of course, once country radio listeners got to hear it, they loved it.  And rightly so.  Chapin may be an Ivy League-educated, urbane woman, but she’s tapping the same vein here that Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette did with their songs decades earlier.  This is a full, uncompromising look at the maddening life of a neglected housewife, where “everything is so benign, spit and polish ’till it shines.”

What made it so very nineties when compared to those classic Lynn and Wynette records is our neglected housewife packs her husband’s bags and tells him to get out: “When she was 36, she met him at their door.  She said, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t love you anymore.'”

For all the fist pumping the air that vignette inspired, it’s to her credit that she doesn’t sugarcoat what’s waiting on the other side for a woman who has been a housewife for fifteen years but is seen by the workforce as having no experience:  “For fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay. Now she’s in the typing pool at minimum wage.”

When the chorus repeats, we’re left to wonder if she’s exchanged one benign, mind-numbing routine for another, until Chapin changes the last line of the chorus from “God forbid you change your mind” to “At least until you change your mind.”

She may be stuck in a minimum wage job, but she’s out of a loveless marriage and she has some autonomy for the first time in her life.  It may not be the happy ending you’d see in a fairy tale, but a win is a win.

The Road From No. 1

Mary Chapin Carpenter had exactly three No. 1 singles, all consecutive, all classics, and all in 1994.  She’ll be back soon.

“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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Next: Alan Jackson, “(Who Says) You Can’t Have it All”

13 Comments

  1. I never realized it took this long for radio to grant MCC her first number one until this feature, especially given how successful she was throughout the early 90’s. While we were going through 1991, 1992, and 1993, in the back of my mind I was going “Where’s Chapin?”. However, it also seems very fitting that this is the one that got her to the penthouse first, as it’s definitely one of her signature songs, and a very fine one, at that.

    This is one of the MCC songs I heard the most on the radio as a recurrent as I got back into country radio in the mid 90’s, and every time it came on while I happened to be in the car with my dad, he’d always say it was one of his favorites. I liked it then mostly for the jangly and chiming guitars and overall feel good vibes of the music, but I didn’t truly appreciate it until I got older and started following the lyrics and storyline more. While I’ve heard some describe it as a sad song, and I can see how they see it that way (the minimum wage job, plus we don’t really know what happens to the kids), I’ve always seen it as more of a victory song for the female character for the reasons you said in the review. While it is sad that she could only get a low paying job after years of working her butt off (My mom is also a stay at home mom, so I’ve seen first hand how hard that job is), she is also likely a lot more happy than she’s been in quite a long time, instead of only pretending to be happy like in those Christmas cards. While I do feel bad for the kids having to deal with their parents splitting up, I have also seen how damaging it can be when parents who don’t really love or respect one another stay together just for the sake of the kids.

    I can’t comment on this song without mentioning the wonderful lineup of legendary female artists from the 80’s and 90’s backing her up on various live performances of the song, sort of like the Mount Rushmore of the greatest female artists of the time period. I especially love the cute dance moves that Kathy and Suzy do throughout! As much as I love that performance from the ’93 CMA’s (which even shows the old commercial that inspired the song), this one from the Women Of Country special from 1993 still gives me chills every time I watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVL4mDFX3rY Sigh…Did I ever mention how much I miss the 90’s?

    Besides this song, I love just about every other single she released in the late 80’s and early 90’s, especially “Never Had It So Good,” “Something Of A Dreamer,” “Quittin’ Time,” “You Win Again,” “Down At The Twist And Shout,” “Going Out Tonight,” “Not Too Much To Ask,” “Passionate Kisses,” and “The Hard Way.” My step dad even bought home her Shooting Straight In The Dark album in late 1991 because “Twist and Shout” was one of our biggest new favorites back then. I love how she was able to balance uptempo feel good songs like that with lyrically deeper, storytelling folk influenced songs that were also a great match for her voice.

  2. I remember this music video being played often on cmt when we first got cable back in 1995. I love that she brought in the top women of the time to sing backup for the song and it gave the song a more powerful we stand together as women feel to me. It also showed how at the time women were a force to be reckoned with on country radio with better material and equal album sales as men. The Women of Country special that is available on YouTube from this time period is one of my favorite time capsules to watch reminding me of where the women took it over the men in the 90s. So many good songs and female artist in solidarity on that concert special!. This song hits all the right spots for me, and while the instrumentation is not very country the lyrics stand the test of time as a country classic with a brilliant message for anyone in a bad marriage or relationship to not settle. This is also Mary at her finest vocally. As a Virginia Boy born and raised in the Shenandoah Valley, I am lucky enough to live close to where Mary lives in Albemarle Va, just over the mountain. What a talent to have close by!

  3. I forget the exact circumstances, but I remember standing up my girlfriend to spend time with my buddies when we are all home from university. My girlfriend unexpectedly- and ungraciously – had a Friday evening free. The unintended consequence of all of this young-love drama was her discovery of this song specifically and country music at its most catholic and inclusive best. She begrudgingly spent her Friday night watching Mary Chapin Carpenter perform on an Austin City Limits broadcast airing on the Twin Cities’ PBS channel KTCA channel 2. This song in particular mattered to her.

    It was her gateway into country music. A fan of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Madonna, Chapin’s sound and songwriting represented a new musical frontier for her to explore. She became infatuated with Chapin. She immersed herself in her albums and we caught every show she performed live in the Twin Cities, from the State Fair Grandstand in St. Paul to the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Her fandom grew to include Kathy Mattea and the Mavericks.

    Chapin had a singular power and ability to draw fans from outside country music to her music. It was an outrageously empowering and creative time for women in country music. The energy from the assembly of female superstars performing with Chapin on stage is palpable and remarkable still today.

    This song is a classic.

  4. I remember liking to sing along with this song and thinking it was catchy, but it wasn’t until my dad explained it to 13-year-old me that I really understood it’s significance and appreciated it more fully.

  5. I’m always surprised that “Passionate Kisses” didn’t go number one, since it was played on our local pop stations a lot and I knew it as a pop song before I knew Mary Chapin Carpenter was a country artist.

  6. Truth – That Women of Country special alone is enough to make me miss the 90’s so much. Every time I watch it, I get not only nostalgic, but also a bit sad knowing that those times are long gone and I wonder if we’ll ever see anything like that again in the genre. Looking at mainstream country from the past decade or so, it’s hard to believe that there actually was a time when the women really were on top, as they were back then. Sigh…different times and different audience, I guess.

    Peter – MCC definitely doesn’t get enough credit for bringing new fans to the genre, imo.

  7. Chapin’s performance of “The Hard Way” from that Women of Country special is the one that I go back to and revisit most often:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jw_a7_7glPk

    Of the singles from Come On Come On, “Passionate Kisses” was probably my favorite and the album itself is quite possibly my favorite album ever (it trades places with another one depending on the day). I’m hoping they announce a 30th anniversary vinyl release this year.

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  8. Re: “Passionate Kisses” – I always assumed that the pop airplay depressed its country peak just enough to avoid number one.

    Now if Hot Country Songs had the all-genre methodology that it has now (after they broke off airplay into a separate chart in 2012), it probably would have been number one for quite a while.

  9. I absolutely adore “Passionate Kisses,” and it’s one of those early 90’s feel good songs that still never fails to brighten my mood and take me back to a better time and place. I actually still hear it at grocery stores every now and then, and it always changes my train of thought and just makes me smile. I’m also surprised it wasn’t a number one.

  10. Mary Chapin Carpenter is my absolute favorite musical artist. Her songwriting is unmatched imo. Her music speaks to me like no one else. I became a fan after seeing her perform Down At The Twist And Shout on the CMA awards and I’ve been a fan since. This is kind of embarrassing to admit but I’ve seen her in concert 17 times. So yeah I kind of dig her music lol.

  11. I sometimes wondered how much the version by the song’s writer Lucinda Williams, affected the airplay of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s recording. I doubt that Lucinda’s 1988 recording got much airplay nationally but there were several country stations that had aired the song, and continued to play it as a recurrent, even while the MCC’s recording was making its chart run. MCC’s arrangement was virtually identical to Lucinda’s (although MCC is much the better vocalist.

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