Mary Chapin Carpenter was formally accepted by the Nashville music industry after stealing the show at the nationally televised 1990 Country Music Awards. Performing her song, “(You Don’t Know Me) I’m the Opening Act,” she won the praise of many of country music’s brightest stars, some of whom inspired Carpenter to write the song. The song itself pokes fun at the big egos of the industry was a risky move because it was a critical commentary of Nashville from someone on the outside—a nobody. She told Leslie Aun of the Washington Business Journal, “I was sitting next to Tammy Wynette, and she held my hand and told me this wonderful story about how years prior, when she was just starting out, how some guy treated her like dirt… That’s when it really hit me. You could be a nobody like me or be Tammy Wynette, and you could relate to that song. That’s why it went over.” As a Nashville recording artist by label only, Carpenter has gone on to record numerous hits, win several Grammy awards, and generate high record sales. However, she would always walk the thin line between artistic expression and commercial appeal.
Carpenter’s origins are far east of Nashville. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, February 21, 1958, she learned to play the guitar while living in Japan with her father who worked for the Asian Edition of Life magazine. The family moved to Washington, D. C. in 1974. Although she graduated from Brown University with a degree in American Civilization, her father encouraged her to take to the stage at an open mike session at a local bar. She made forty dollars the first night she was hired and excitedly began to consider making her hobby a career.
Carpenter’s lyrics often speak of life experiences, winning and losing, and staying true to her ideals. Her ability to connect with personal themes made her popular with both men and women. In 1987, Carpenter released her folksy debut album, Hometown Girl for CBS. The album contained long ballads that revealed her talents as a gifted songwriter, but received mostly college radio airplay. Her second album, State of the Heart, was released in 1989 and was well received by critics. The album also made her a commercial success. The album went gold, and two songs, “Never Had It so Good” and “Quittin’ Time,” made Billboard’s top ten list. The album also earned major awards for the Top New Female Vocalists by the Academy of Country Music and a Grammy award nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance/Female.
In 1990, Carpenter hit platinum with her album Shooting Straight In The Dark. The song “Down at the Twist and Shout” reached number one and won her a Grammy award for Best Country Vocal Performance/Female. However, it was the song “Middle Ground” that captured a theme and made her a darling of the 30-something single group. The song was really about a conversation she had with her sister on searching for a middle ground—and avoiding the extreme highs and lows of life with work, relationships, and friends. Carpenter told Susan Korones Gifford of Cosmopolitan, “If you’re not married and you don’t have kids, it’s like you’re swimming, but you’re not sure if you’re gonna drown the next minute. So the song’s really about a lot of people in our generation.” Carpenter would go on to win four Grammy awards from 1991-94, the most by any artist.
Come On Come On, her 1992 release, moved Carpenter into the stratosphere of the country music scene. The album went triple platinum, received three Grammy awards, had seven hit singles, and spent two years at the top of the Billboards charts. Her 1994 release, Stones In The Road, debuted in the number one position on Billboards Top Country Albums and remained there for five weeks. The songs contained deeply personal and serious themes that reveal moments of love and loneliness. She told Dana Kennedy of Entertainment Weekly, “I feel like I came real late to the party… (Stones In The Road) is about the sorrow I feel that we’ve forgotten our commitment to more than just material possessions. And it’s about me trying to figure out what I’ve missed.”
For the Record…
Born February 21, 1958, in Princeton, NJ; one of four daughters of a Life magazine executive. Education: Brown University.
Signed with CBS Records and released first album, Hometown Girl, 1988; released State of the Heart (includes “Quittin’ Time” and “You Never Had It So Good”), 1989; released Shooting Straight in the Dark, (includes “Down at the Twist and Shout”), 1991; signed to Columbia and released Come On Come On, 1992; released Stones in the Road, 1994; released A Place in the World, 1996.
Awards: Country Music Association Awards: Female Vocalist of the Year 1992, 1993; Academy of Country Music Awards: New Female Vocalist 1989 and Female Vocalist 1992; Grammys: Best Female Country Vocal Performance 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and Best Country Album 1994; triple platinum status for Come On Come On, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Columbia (Sony Music Distribution), Sony Music Entertainment, P. O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101. Management company —Borman Entertainment, 9220 Sunset Boulevard Suite 320, Los Angeles, CA 90060. Fan Mail— Mary Chapin Carpenter, 15030 Ventura Blvd. 1710, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.
The tour to support the album was documented in Carpenters book The Road Tour Book 1995, which includes essays by Carpenter, augmented by photographs from Time magazine’s photojournalist William Campbell. All proceeds from the book sales were donated to the CARE Foundation, which is committed to improving the global community. The tour was also documented in the PBS series In the Spotlight.
A Place in The World, Carpenter’s 1996 release, was a search for self. She told K. T. Oslin of Entertainment Weekly, “Place is connected to identity, and identity is connected to self and worth, and together these songs make artistic spiritual sense. I’m always trying to figure out where I fit.” One song, “Let Me Into Your Heart,” was written for the sound track to the Kevin Costner movie, Tin Cup. Carpenter also wrote music for such films as Fly Away Home and Dead Man Walking. The album achieved gold status and earned her another Grammy nomination for the single “Let Me Into Your Heart.”
Carpenter used her commercial success to draw attention to many national issues. TheSonyNashville.com web site quotes Carpenter; “I think writing, if you really work at it, has the ability to show you things you might not see otherwise, in yourself and the world around you. I just let my mind run free and see where it goes.” Carpenter also wrote an essay for the book A Voice Of Our Own: Leading Women Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. She has penned two bedtime stories for children, Dreamland: A Lullaby and Halley Came To Jackson. Proceeds from her book Dreamland were donated to the Voiceless Victims Project of the Institute for Inter cultural Understanding. Carpenter performed at the UNICEF’s fiftieth anniversary concert in 1997. She accompanied Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to Bosnia to perform a Christmas Eve concert for the soldiers stationed there.
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, (includes “Down at the Twist and Shout”). CBS, 1991.
Come On Come On, Columbia, 1992.
Stones in the Road, Columbia, 1994.
A Place in The World, Columbia, 1996.
Billboard, November 19, 1994; September 21, 1996.
Booklist, November 1, 1996.
Cosmopolitan, April 1991.
Entertainment Weekly, July 17, 1992; November 11, 1994; September 27, 1996.
People, November 6, 1995.
Publishers Weekly, August 12, 1996; August 10, 1998.
Time, November 11, 1996.
Washington Business Journal, March 11, 1991.
“Mary Chapin Carpenter,” January 8, 1999, http://www.servtech.com
“Mary Chapin Carpenter,” Country Weekly Online, January 8, 1999, http://www.countryweekly.com
“Mary Chapin Carpenter,” January 8, 1999, http://www.sonynashville.com
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