Carpenter, Mary Chapin

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Born: Princeton, New Jersey, 21 February 1958

Genre: Country, Folk

Best-selling album since 1990: Stones in the Road (1994)

Hit songs since 1990: "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," "Shut Up and Kiss Me"

The commercial success of Mary Chapin Carpenter points to the increased diversity of country music in the early 1990s. Raised in the North, politically liberal, and largely influenced by folk music, Carpenter was an anomaly within country's southern, mostly conservative environment. Like fellow performers Reba McEntire and Martina McBride, Carpenter tapped into a current of feminism running through 1990s country. In the hit "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" (1992), she details the gradual awakening and liberation of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage, while "I Feel Lucky" (1992) and "Shut Up and Kiss Me" (1994) exude a bold confidence far removed from the long-suffering image of female country singers of the 1960s and 1970s. An understated performer, Carpenter appealed to audiences through her relaxed bearing and warm, throaty voice. By the end of the 1990s, with commercial country music veering in a smooth pop direction, Carpenter continued to hew her own path, recording challenging albums that could not be categorized within any particular style.

Folk Beginnings

The daughter of an executive for Life magazine, Carpenter grew up in the university town of Princeton, New Jersey, spending an additional two years of her childhood in Japan, where her father oversaw the Asian edition of Life. Carpenter began playing guitar at an early age, influenced by her mother's love of folk performers such as Woody Guthrie and Judy Collins. Moving with her family to Washington, D.C., when she was sixteen, Carpenter became involved in the city's active folk music scene before attending prestigious Brown University, where she received a degree in American Civilization. Returning to Washington after graduation, Carpenter began performing with guitarist John Jennings, selling a homemade demo tape of her songs at concerts. After hearing a copy of the tape, a Columbia Records executive offered Carpenter an audition that led to a recording contract in 1987. Carpenter's debut album, Hometown Girl (1987), spotlighted her skills as a folk singer, songwriter, and guitarist. While its folk-oriented approach was too laidback to produce any country hits, gentle ballads such as "Just Because" revealed Carpenter as a performer of subtlety and charm. After the commercial success of her second album, State of the Heart (1989), Carpenter left her day job at a Washington philanthropic organization to pursue her music career full time.

Country Stardom

Carpenter's next album, Shooting Straight in the Dark (1990), integrated her folk impulses within a polished country setting, an infusion that resulted in the hits "Going Out Tonight" and "You Win Again." On the latter, built upon the concept of a woman calling her lover from a pay phone, Carpenter displays her talent for sharp, intelligent songwriting: "I just start crying, 'cause it makes so sense / To waste these words and twenty-five cents on a losing game / Baby, you win again." The album's biggest hit, however, is "Down at the Twist and Shout," an exuberant dance number sporting the shuffling, loping rhythms of Louisiana Cajun music. Recorded with the Cajun group Beausoleil, the song's success paved the way for Carpenter's 1992 breakthrough album, Come On Come On.

Riding the success of Come On Come On, Carpenter's next release, Stones in the Road (1994), became her best-selling album. However, aside from the catchy hit, "Shut Up and Kiss Me," Stones in the Road lacked the impact and influence of its predecessor. On A Place in the World (1996), the disparity between Carpenter's country and folk styles is more marked than on previous releases. Veering from the flashy, horn-driven R&B sound of "Let Me into Your Heart" to the wistful, romantic, "What If We Went to Italy," the album failed to garner any Top 10 country hits. While Carpenter's eclecticism was satisfying from an artistic standpoint, it began to hamper her ongoing success within the increasingly streamlined, pop-oriented world of late 1990s country radio.

Spot Light: Come On Come On

The release of Come On Come On (1992) signaled Mary Chapin Carpenter's progression from up-and-coming performer with folk leanings to full-fledged country star. Although the album sports an array of styles, Carpenter's strong personality and the smooth guidance of producer Steve Buckingham ensure a warm, cohesive sound. Containing no less than seven hit singles, the album features one of Carpenter's best-known hits, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," a compelling tale of a frustrated wife who leaves her husband. Presented as stages of aging and maturity in the woman's life, the song captivates listeners with a strong narrative through-line: "When she was twenty-nine, she delivered number three / And every Christmas card showed a perfect family." The album's other hits are equally impressive: "I Feel Lucky" is a rousing, humorous number in which a woman declares her optimism in the face of a bad horoscope, while the driving "Passionate Kisses" captures a sensuousness and longing that echo in Carpenter's subsequent work. While "I Feel Lucky" and "I Take My Chances" depict a tough feminine spirit that would inform the confident image of late 1990s singers such as Shania Twain, the quiet, restrained, "I Am a Town" recalls Carpenter's early folk influences. A rich, detailed snapshot of small-town life, the song displays Carpenter's gift for lyrical imagery: "I'm a town in Carolina, I am billboards in the fields / I'm a old truck up on cinder blocks, missing all my wheels." Earning Grammy Awards for both "I Feel Lucky" and "Passionate Kisses," Carpenter emerged with Come On Come On as one of the most influential country performers of the 1990s.

By the release of time*sex*love* (2001), which contained only one minor hit, "Simple Life," it had become clear that Carpenter's idiosyncratic talents no longer fit the strictures of mainstream country. Exploring themes of aging and remembrance, Carpenter uses the album as a showcase for her deepened voice and new songwriting maturity. On songs such as "Someone Else's Prayer," she tinges her romantic perspective with a sense of loss, exploring how concrete objects are linked with ephemeral feelings of longing and desire. A highlight of the album is "Late for Your Life," a probing study of life at midstream. Reinforced with gentle, flowing instrumentation, the song's theme of missed chances and opportunity is captured in Carpenter's philosophical lyrics: "No one knows where they belong / The search just goes on and on and on / For every choice that ends up wrong / Another one's right." Ignored by mainstream radio, time*sex*love* nonetheless contains some of Carpenter's deepest, most powerful work.

Carpenter rose from the world of folk music to become a major country star of the 1990s, finding success with her warm voice and lyrical, intelligent songwriting. Although she had difficulty maintaining her stardom within the late 1990s country music industry, Carpenter demonstrated the talent to grow with her fans, moving from the thirty-something wife of "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" to the middle-aged truth seeker of "Late for Your Life" with power and conviction.


Hometown Girl (Columbia, 1987); State of the Heart (Columbia, 1989); Shooting Straight in the Dark (Columbia, 1990); Come On Come On (Columbia, 1992); Stones in the Road (Columbia, 1994); A Place in the World (Columbia, 1996); time*sex*love* (Columbia, 2001).


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Carpenter, Mary Chapin

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