The Popdose Guide to Mary Chapin Carpenter

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

She’s been steadily releasing well-crafted albums on a more-or-less consistent basis for nearly 20 years, and her music defies easy pigeonholing. Consequently, since her early ’90s breakthrough, Mary Chapin Carpenter has found herself on a downward commercial slope. Ironically, as her music has more deftly incorporated elements of pop, folk, and country, support from any of those formats has been harder to find. Like Shawn Colvin — who we covered not long ago, and who came up during the same period — Carpenter has settled into a sort of commercial limbo, one in which her releases are frequently lauded by critics and ignored by buyers.

As a fan of Carpenter’s brand of mournful introspection, I’d like to think this is because the major label machinery is simply ill-equipped to bring this kind of music to an audience that doesn’t know how to find it. Though a career-long Columbia Nashville artist (at least up ’til now:but more on that later), most of Carpenter’s releases are country albums only in part; that being said, she had the good fortune to hit her stride during a time in which a lot of country records were selling really well, and her best-selling album, 1992’s Come On Come On, was released before country radio was walled off to artists who tinkered so freely with the genre.

Anyway, as I said, I’d like to think that. But it could be just that there isn’t a huge sustainable audience for artists like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Radney Foster, or Jim Lauderdale. Hey, either way, you’re along for the ride with me this week as we take a look back at Carpenter’s catalog. Maybe you were a fan awhile back and lost touch with her; maybe you’ve been here all along; maybe you’ll be impressed enough to pick up an album or two.


Hometown Girl (1987)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Hometown Girl

As we’ve discussed here on more than one occasion, there are two kinds of good debut albums: Ones that do such a great job of presenting the artists’ strengths that they’re nearly impossible to follow, and ones that hint at future potential. Hometown Girl is the latter.

Part of the problem is that it has mid-’80s country production, which was frequently even worse than what was heard at other points on the dial during the era. Pop and rock music sounded synthetic in 1987, but they were usually trying to; with recordings like Hometown Girl, what you usually ended up getting was San Antonio by way of Casio, and the sound has not aged well.

On the whole, these songs don’t have the depth of emotion or perspective of her later material, but there’s some good stuff nonetheless. Carpenter covered Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train” (download) before, and better than, Rod Stewart, and “Family Hands” (download) gives you a compelling outline of where she was headed.


State of the Heart (1989)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - State of the Heart

Two years later, same shitty production, and State of the Heart offers a listening experience that today sounds as dated as Carpenter’s hair in the cover photo looks.

Better songs, though. “This Shirt” (download) is the earliest, best example of the kind of sweetly sorrowful storytelling at which Carpenter would later excel, and her first country hit, “Never Had It So Good,” demonstrates her gift for playing the woman scorned (not to mention her ease with a pop hook). “It Don’t Bring You” (download) closes things out with an old-fashioned moral-of-the-story number that, pleasantly, refrains from heavy-handed moralizing.

State put four singles in the Top 20 of Billboard’s country singles chart, poising Carpenter for a breakthrough.


Shooting Straight in the Dark (1990)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Shooting Straight in the Dark

Most people, if they know of Mary Chapin Carpenter at all, remember her for Come On Come On, but — as Shooting Straight in the Dark demonstrates — the template for that album’s (and, by extension, Carpenter’s) success was being laid down piece by piece well beforehand. That template, essentially, consisted of tossing in a couple tongue-in-cheek, overtly country uptempo numbers that would play to the cheap seats, a few pedal steel ballads that would tug at some heartstrings, and then rounding out the record with a handful of songs that defied easy categorization. It was always the songs from that last group that I liked best — and the songs from the first group that were big hits.

As time went on, this formula stopped working, and became awfully easy to see through besides, but for awhile, it proved a compelling magic act. Consider that “Down at the Twist and Shout” not only got Beausoleil on country radio, but rose all the way to #2, and it’s hard to begrudge a strategy that was likely motivated at least in part by crass commercialism.

Shooting Straight in the Dark spun off another four country hits for Carpenter, but the best stuff is found deeper in. “Halley Came to Jackson” (download) is a finely shaded portrait of a passing comet’s effect on a small town, and “The Moon and St. Christopher” (download) is an early entry in what would become a long line of songs detailing the death of innocence and a deepening acquaintance with regret.


Come On Come On (1992)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Come On Come On

Right place, right time: During a year in which grunge-fearing suburbanites were strapping on big belt buckles and learning how to line dance, Mary Chapin Carpenter released not only one of her best albums, but one of the best mainstream country albums of the era. Everything works: Carpenter is joined by a bevy of guests (including the Indigo Girls, Rosanne Cash, and Shawn Colvin) and covers some notable heavyweights, but the originals stand proud and tall against the outside material, and the focus is always squarely where it’s supposed to be. Aside from the hokey “I Feel Lucky,” there really isn’t anything here that could reasonably be considered a bad song.

Carpenter was rewarded handsomely. Come On Come On sent a whopping eight songs into the country Top 20, and her cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” crossed over to AC. The album was still spinning out singles two years later.

Fortunately — for the purposes of this Guide, anyway — my two personal favorites were never sent to radio. “Only a Dream” (download) and the haunting “I Am a Town” (download) are shining examples of the empathy and craft that move Carpenter’s finest work.

Up, up, up. You can’t go much higher than eight hit singles from a twelve-song album. Where to now?

You know. But first, here’s Carpenter performing “I Am a Town” on Austin City Limits:


Stones in the Road (1994)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Stones in the Road

Okay, so calling Stones in the Road Mary Chapin Carpenter’s fall from grace is jumping the gun a little — that wouldn’t really happen until the next record. Actually, it charted higher than any of its predecessors, hitting #1 on the country charts and #10 on the Top 200. Those peaks were on the front end, though; Columbia promoted the hell out of Stones, and there was no small amount of anticipation for the album anyway, so those peaks were to be expected. What this record ended up lacking was staying power: “Shut Up and Kiss Me” hit #1 on the country charts, and “Tender When I Want to Be” hit #6, but “House of Cards” missed the Top 20, and none of the album’s four singles made much of a dent at other formats.The songs are partly to blame. Whether the album’s sound was by design or due to a lack of strong material is impossible to say (at least for me), but where Shooting and Come On were smart, joyous amalgams of pop, folk, and country, Stones in the Road is mostly just sort of a dull echo. It’s partly a songwriter’s record — nothing is less than well-written — and partly a seemingly conscious attempt to imitate what got Carpenter on the radio before. The audience was getting hip to the formula, however. “Shut Up and Kiss Me” isn’t any worse than similar numbers from previous albums (in fact, it’s got a pretty decent slide solo from Lee Roy Parnell), but it definitely carried a strong echo of singles past.

It doesn’t help that this is a long album (thirteen songs), and ballad-heavy. It drags in spots. Her best songs are more than capable of carrying an album like this, but by and large, this collection doesn’t contain Carpenter’s best songs. “Why Walk When You Can Fly” (download) is a nice leadoff track, and “Jubilee” (download) is undeniably pretty (and boasts some nice pennywhistle from Paul Brady), but cracks were definitely beginning to show.


A Place in the World (1996)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - A Place in the World

Like Stones in the Road, A Place in the World charted respectably — #14 country, #20 pop — but failed to register on the radio. “Let Me Into Your Heart” was a Top Twenty country hit, but nothing else had much of an impact.

It’s somewhat fitting. If Stones set out to be a songwriter’s record but wound up being too introspective by half, Place comes across as a transparent bid to win back the hearts of country radio programming directors. But the stuff that worked for Carpenter at the beginning of the decade wasn’t getting played anymore, and anyway, a lot of this record’s songs fall in the shadow of what made her famous. It was a disappointing step back for an artist who had always seemed to lead her audience.

Of course, it isn’t without its moments. “Ideas Are Like Stars” (download) is sadly gorgeous, and “Naked to the Eye” (download), but they’re tucked away toward the end of the record.

Commercially, Carpenter was suffering limited returns, but more importantly, she seemed to be treading water creatively. A change was in order.


Time*Sex*Love* (2001)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Time*Sex*Love*

If Mary Chapin Carpenter had always been a country artist mostly in a nominal sense, with Time*Sex*Love, she truly sailed off into uncharted waters. Carpenter and longtime partner John Jennings built a breezy, colorfully layered web of sound around the album’s fourteen songs, one which belied their often less-than-cheerful subject matter. Aside from archaic Billboard chart placement rules, it’s difficult to imagine how “Simple Life” (download) was considered a country song (and, by the same token, very easy to guess its fate on the country chart).

Time*Sex*Love is a big record in every way. Aside from its overstuffed length and intricate production, the album has grand ambitions: The full title is a Fiona Apple-esque Time Is the Great Gift; Sex Is the Great Equalizer; Love Is the Great Mystery. Maybe this was just the album she wanted to make at the time, or maybe it was a conscious reminder that — recent failed cops to radio aside — she was an artist worth reckoning with; either way, the whole thing works better than it ought to.

43 when this album was released, Carpenter was now, in age as well as predilection, thoroughly out of step with the new crop of country stars. If her peers had broadened the genre’s borders by tapping into the folk tradition and roots rock, newer platinum sellers like Rascal Flatts were more comfortable drawing on MOR dinosaurs like Chicago for inspiration. In this climate, an artist like Carpenter — who was never really “country” in the first place — stood as much to gain from releasing a wild, woolly mess of a record as they did from bothering to try and fit in. A number of the album’s songs deal with age, both literal and commercial, but even if you aren’t poring over the words, this is one exceedingly cool listen.

Too many artists, when faced with the same crossroads that presented itself to Carpenter, opt to keep frantically squeezing the dried-up teat of past glories. Aside from the loss of dignity involved, what’s sad about this is that the best music, by far, lies along the less-traveled path. There’s no reason to own just one of her albums, but if you insist for some reason, this might be the one. I don’t believe it’s her best — more on that in a minute — but it artfully presents all sides of what makes her special. I could easily include four, five, six downloads, but here’s “Maybe World” (download). Buy a copy for yourself to hear the rest.


Between Here and Gone (2004)
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Mary Chapin Carpenter - Between Here and Gone

How you’ll feel about Carpenter’s eighth studio album (and, curiously, her first to be recorded in Nashville) will have a lot to do with whether you prefer her quieter or more uptempo side. If it’s the latter, you might find Between Here and Gone to be a big yawn, at least at first; speaking as someone who has always felt Carpenter’s best foot forward is her most mournful, let me tell you that this album is a masterpiece, a thing of sad, luminous beauty, and her best album yet.

It seems safe to say these songs were strongly colored by events taking place between the release of her last album, in the spring of 2001, and this one, in the spring of 2004. Rather than soapboxing, though, Carpenter opts for the softer, richer middle road, seeking to provide comfort and understanding. Such sentiments could easily stray toward the dippy end of the spectrum in less skillful hands, but even when addressing the universal, Carpenter ties everything strongly back to the personal; rather than corny or foolishly pie-in-the-sky, these songs’ lyrics are full of tenderness and healing.

And what lyrics.

Folks who appreciate the words before the music are definitely in the minority, but put your ear to the surface of this album and you’ll be richly rewarded. Even for a songwriter whose lyrics have always been smarter than most, Between Here and Gone offers some lovely turns of phrase. They’re scattered throughout the album like jewels. Some casually surface — “The key to traveling light is to/Not need very much,” from “One Small Heart”; or the great couplet “Loneliness is like a cold/Common and no cure we’re told,” from “Girls Like Me” (download) — and some are more obvious. From the title track:

Up above me
Wayward angels
A blur of wings and grace.
One for courage,
One for safety,
One for “just in case”

From “Beautiful Racket”:

So your day will end like this
Turning slowly down your street
Silent worlds of kitchens lit
Front yards full of fallen leaves
Trees are bare, the garden’s done
Another season gone to earth
Before you blink a new one comes
To remind you what the old one’s worth

From “The Shelter of Storms”:

You can’t be free till you leave behind
Your bitter heart, but you can’t change
You curse the sun, and pray for rain
You always run
For the shelter of storms

From “Elysium” (download):

I could wonder if all of it led me to you
I could show you the arrows and circles I drew
I didn’t have a map, it’s the best I could do
On the fly and on the run
To dreams that were tethered like kites to the ground
To the bridges I burned, to then turning around
It was here in your heart I was finally found
And the last battle won for Elysium

The album didn’t reverse Carpenter’s commercial slide, naturally; records like this really aren’t made for the radio, or hell, maybe even mass consumption. It peaked at a certainly respectable #5 on the country album chart, but didn’t stick around long, didn’t generate any heat on the radio, and didn’t cross over to the pop charts. It wasn’t surprising — Carpenter always belonged more with the John Hiatts and Shawn Colvins of the world than the Billy Ray Cyruses — but a shame nonetheless. I can’t shake the notion that there are a lot of people out there who’d love this album if they only heard it.

Maybe you’re one of them.

Between Here and Gone was the end of the road for her association with Columbia, but it isn’t the end of the story for Mary Chapin Carpenter. Billboard recently announced that she’d signed with Rounder, the preeminent indie for smart, acoustic-based songwriters, and would be releasing an album in 2007. Personally, I’d hoped she’d sign with Nonesuch, and looked forward to hearing the willfully artistic and borderline strange music that such a marriage would no doubt have produced. But hey, as long as she keeps making albums, that’s the important thing.