Mary-Chapin Carpenter is a Nashville artist who is stretching the boundaries of country music to embrace contemporary folk and rock. Carpenter’s intensely personal songs about rocky relationships and self-identity have earned a strong following on college and alternative radio stations, but they have also found their way into the country market and even onto the country top-forty charts. Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Gordon Ely noted that Carpenter, who writes her own material, “has a style that manages to combine the literariness of her Ivy League education with the emotional honesty and self-revelation that is the stock in trade of country music. In the process, she’s managed to dodge the glitz-and-glamour boys and maintain an air of unpretentiousness.”
Sequined suits and cowboy boots are not part of Carpenter’s act. Nor does she often rely on the standard stock of country instruments as backup for her songs. Instead she performs in well-worn, comfortable clothing, with her own acoustic guitar work complimenting her arresting low-range vocals. “I don’t think of myself as country,” Carpenter told the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. But, she added, “The truth is I was never really comfortable about being labeled as a folkie. For me, folk music means playing something traditional, or ethnic music. But when I played my music in clubs for years, I played contemporary music.”
Mary-Chapin, whose name is a double moniker like Mary Jane, was born in Princeton, New Jersey. Her father was a prominent executive with Life magazine, so she grew up in comfortable circumstances. When she was still young the family moved to Washington, D.C., a city that has embraced her as one of its own. There she picked up the guitar and learned to play, influenced by her older sisters’ Beatles, Mamas and Papas, and Judy Collins albums.
After she graduated from high school, Carpenter became very serious about music, spending long hours strumming her guitar and composing songs in the privacy of her room. She told the San Jose Mercury News that she never considered a career in music until her father prodded her in that direction. “He said, There’s a bar down the street; they have open-mike sessions; why don’t you go out and play at one of those things?’” she remembered. “That was the first time it occurred to me, frankly.”
Carpenter attended Brown University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American civilization. On the weekends and in the summers she performed, simply
For the Record…
Born c. 1958, in Princeton, NJ; daughter of a Life magazine executive. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1981.
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist, c. 1980—. Signed with CBS Records and released first album, Hometown Girl, 1988. Had first two country hits, “Quittin’ Time” and “You Never Had It So Good,” 1989.
Awards: Named best new female artist, Academy of Country Music, 1990; Grammy Award nomination for best country vocal performance by a woman, 1991, for “Quittin’ Time.”
Addresses: Record company —Columbia (Sony Music Distribution), Sony Music Entertainment, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101.
as a hobby to earn spending money. Her repertory at the time was standard bar fare: top forty hits and oldies, with only an occasional original tune thrown in. Carpenter recalls these years as difficult ones—the late nights in pub settings led to excessive drinking. “I had a big problem,” she told the San Jose Mercury News. “It was awful. I had to make a lifestyle change in a drastic way…. It’s still so painful to me to think about how I was.”
Eventually Carpenter decided to play only in those places that would allow her to do her own material. She was fortunately situated in Washington, D.C., a stronghold for bluegrass, folk, and innovative acoustic music. By 1986 Carpenter was a local star, very much in demand in Washington’s busy clubs. With the help of sideman John Jennings, she assembled enough songs for a demo tape and secured a manager who would try to find her a recording contract in Nashville. A CBS executive liked the tape, signed Carpenter to the label, and allowed her a large measure of creative freedom in the studio.
Carpenter’s first album, Hometown Girl, was released in 1988. Her work was quickly—if somewhat dubiously—categorized as “contemporary country,” similar in style and substance to the music of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Carpenter remembered in the Wichita Eagle-Beacon that although Hometown Girl received positive reviews, it did not sell well. “If it weren’t for public radio, it wouldn’t have seen the light of day,” she said. Even public radio provided her with a fan following, however, especially on college campuses.
The breakthrough album for Carpenter was State of the Heart, released in 1989. Somewhat to her surprise, two cuts from the album—“Quittin’ Time” and “You Never Had It So Good”—shot up the country charts, and she was named best new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1990. Carpenter made these strides without condescending to the so-called “traditional” country female vocalist sound. “The people in the country community made me feel accepted that you can be different,” she told the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. “Outside Nashville, there’s a notion that country music is all cheating songs and beehive hairdos and they don’t allow you to be anything else. But you can see that they’re reaching out.”
A Mary-Chapin Carpenter album may contain a wide variety of songs and styles, from Cajun-country to simple acoustic folk ballads to blue laments about love gone wrong. San Jose Mercury News correspondent Eliza Wing called Carpenter’s voice “a strong, straight-ahead instrument that sounds as though it’s used to talking out problems late into the night.” The critic added that the artist’s songs, “whether they’re mournful, contemplative or angry, rely on country idioms even as they bend the genre.”
Carpenter admits that she uses songwriting as “self-therapy” to help expel her own personal melancholy over broken relationships and sundered friendships. Her music certainly offers a woman’s perspective on deep emotional issues, but her appeal cuts neatly across the gender gap. “I never set out to write songs to appeal to only one kind of person or gender,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. “My characters tend to be single women—a lot of the songs I write are about me …—but the feelings I feel are feelings I know I share with a lot of men my age, too.”
The acceptance in Nashville is particularly gratifying to Carpenter, since it has come on her own terms. “Country music is not what you wear or what kind of instruments are on your record,” she told the Orlando Sentinel. “It’s a state of mind having to do with substance, not style.”
Hometown Girl, CBS, 1988.
State of the Heart (includes “Quittin’ Time” and “You Never Had It So Good”), CBS, 1989.
Shooting Straight in the Dark, CBS, 1991.
Vaughan, Andrew, Who’s Who in New Country Music, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Orlando Sentinel, November 23, 1990.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 3, 1990.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 8, 1990.
San Jose Mercury News, March 22, 1991.
Wichita Eagle-Beacon, April 30, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson