Every #1 Single of the Nineties: Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I Take My Chances”

“I Take My Chances”

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Written by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Don Schlitz

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

July 1, 1994

Columbia takes their chances with an unprecedented seventh single from one album.

The Road to No. 1

Come On Come On was already double platinum by the time the album’s sixth single, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” became Mary Chapin Carpenter’s first No. 1 hit.  Six singles from a country album was nearly unprecedented, with Confederate Railroad pulling six releases from their 1992 self-titled album before Carpenter did the same.  Columbia proceeded with a history-making seventh single, and it became Carpenter’s second consecutive No. 1 hit.

The No. 1

“I Take My Chances” is similar thematically to “I Feel Lucky,” with the wry storytelling of that earlier hit replaced with Carpenter’s wry observations of the world around her.

It’s the second verse that soars the highest, as she slices televangelism into ribbons with a few cutting lines: “He’d show me the way, according to him, in return for my personal check.  I flipped my channel back to CNN and I lit another cigarette.”   As she notes in the chorus that follows, “forgiveness doesn’t come with a debt.”

Beyond that verse, we get a vignette of her standing on a railroad track, facing down a train “just to see how my heart would react,” as well as a tinge of regret for living on the edge: “I’ve crossed lines of words and wire and both have cut me deep. I’ve been frozen out and I’ve been on fire, and the tears are mine to weep.”

Seven singles and three Female Vocalist trophies in, it was getting easy to take Carpenter’s very specific stew of intelligence and empathy for granted.  God, I miss it now.

The Road From No. 1

One more No. 1 on is on deck, and it’s the lead single from another multi-platinum album.  We’ll get to it in the fall of 1994.

“I Take My Chances” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Nineties

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5 Comments

  1. I guess there are at least two ways to interpret Nashville’s willingness to release seven singles from one album.

    The first reason is the magnanimous one. It depends upon the belief that albums were still intentionally crafted collections of songs in the mid 90’s. Attributes like sequencing, tempo, mood, and risk all factored into to how an album was structured, as well as determining what singles were released when. In Carpenter’s case, her albums were wonderfully crafted and obviously had creative and commercial depth enough to mine them to this extent and still bring up gems.

    The second, more cynical take, is that Nashville was just doing what it always does; ride the hot hand. This drilling down into one album for radio material is just a variant of today’s tendency to just spew out single after single by a hot artist without the context of an album. Nashville just chasing its own tail to get material out to market by hot artists as quickly as possible. For those with an album recorded it was easier and quicker to release what was already available. Today, it is easier and faster to record singles and not bother with the time-consuming process of album making.

    Carpenter delivered wonderful albums filled with amazing songs whatever the reasons were for how her label managed her output and production.

    I couldn’t help but notice how many comments there were from her first number one hit several songs back. She had a special appeal to people beyond country, maybe only rivaled by Garth Brooks in her ability to reach across genre lines.

    People could easily access the many influences she brought to her music: country, pop, folk.

    I have always found her voice hypnotic and her writing poetic.

    She was at her commercial peak here. A master at crafting her trade.

    I still love her most recent, contemporary albums which lack any mainstream aspirations or striving for radio success. She has been critically flayed for becoming a droning, one-note coffeehouse singer at this stage of her career but I think that’s unfair. When I think of singer/songwriters who have openly carried hurt, rejection, vulnerability, and doubt as honestly as she does, I end up at Hank Williams. The challenge of her later work is that it is emotionally uncomfortable to listen to it. Gone are the friendly radio hits.

    Thankfully, “I Take My Chances” is alive with production, melody, drive, and hope.

    What makes the recent chart-lows in 1994 tolerable is Nashville’s ability to still reach breathtaking highs with hits like this.

    • I think with Chapin’s set in particular, Columbia was trying to figure out how to capitalize on her dominating at retail and on the awards circuit, despite relatively tepid radio airplay. They reportedly waited on “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” because they didn’t want to release it during the 1992 presidential campaign and its focus on “family values,” so that partially contributed to an obvious hit not being released until five other singles before it. When it became the biggest hit from the album, and Chapin didn’t have another album ready yet, it made sense to keep the momentum going, and the only real radio single left was “I Take My Chances.”

      Chapin dealt with writer’s block during this time period, until a relationship breakup led to the flood of songs that made up her next album. Only the title track was written much earlier. It’s still my favorite album of hers and I’m looking forward to writing a bit about it when the first single goes No. 1.

      • This is such cool info, and I love learning new things regarding certain artists, single releases, and what was going on with a particular artist at a certain time that influenced their output. I always thought it was simply amazing how an album released in the Summer of 1992 was still cranking out smash hits in the middle of 1994, and that it was from someone like Mary Chapin Carpenter, nonetheless. That such a quality folk/rock influenced artist like Chapin could have that kind of success at all in mainstream country is just yet another reason why I miss the 90’s so much.

        Besides, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” this is another MCC song I remember hearing quite a bit on the radio when I started listening regularly again in 1995. One of my fondest memories of it from back then is that it seemed to be one of the very few newer country songs that my mom actually liked. She had mostly lost interest in modern country by the mid 90’s, but one day while were were both in the car and this song came on, she was singing along to the chorus. I remember then being a bit surprised that she even knew the song. While today she still mostly prefers country from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, she does actually still like some of Chapin’s songs, which is pretty neat.

        As for me, it’s one I’ve grown to appreciate even more as I’ve gotten older, especially since I’ve been learning to take a few more chances myself, which hasn’t always been easy to do with social anxiety. I also really love that second verse mentioned by Kevin. And like most all of the Come On, Come On singles, it’s perfectly produced, from the drums, electric guitar, and Chapin’s lovely voice front and center. The song and the rest of the album just sounds so incredibly fresh today!

        Kevin, with what’s been going on in mainstream country in the more recent years, I truly do miss Chapin’s version of contemporary country. Also, I agree completely with Peter’s last sentence, especially.

  2. Jamie, I wanted to thank you for the courage it takes to share so many intimate and personal anecdotes about your experiences with the songs and your family in this feature. I like to think doing that is example of some of those chances you mention taking despite your social anxiety. That’s genuinely cool.

    Who doesn’t appreciate a song to real-life connection? It’s why I suspect most of us listen to country music in the first place. It, at its best,is a personal genre that encourages fellowship.

    • Peter, thank you so much for that. That means a lot, and I sincerely appreciate it. :)

      These older country songs and the wonderful memories they bring back, many that involve the great times I’ve had with my parents throughout my childhood, are a big part of what keeps me going these days. It’s also one of the main reasons I’ve been loving this feature so much. It’s been taking me down that memory lane, which is something I’ve needed now more than ever. It really does help ease the pain I’ve had for the past three years of not having either of my dads in my life anymore and help me get through a lot of crazy things I’ve had to deal with since.

      I also can’t think of many genres better than country (older country, at least) that’s really helped me get through it all.

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