Go to any Nashville songwriters’ circle and just wait—you’ll hear the name Mary Chapin Carpenter mentioned at least once and the speaker’s tone will undoubtedly be reverential. Go to a show on her recent tour in support of her last album The Age of Miracles and you’ll likely find the venue sold out or close to capacity even if it’s a rainy, cold weekday night.
In a world full of music that many contend is generally devalued, Carpenter’s work is specifically prized by many country and folk music fans for its genuine beauty and authenticity. How else to explain the standing-room-only shows in this age of economic despair when Carpenter’s twelfth studio album is almost a year old? Or why the country-folk singer-songwriter has had her songs covered by everyone from Joan Baez (“Stones in the Road”) to Wynonna Judd (“Girls With Guitars”) to Trisha Yearwood (“Where Are You Now”).
“I have always needed the songwriter part,” said Carpenter before the last leg of her current tour in explaining why she constantly juggles a heavy tour schedule and songwriting. “As a kid I always loved music and I loved to scream and shout. When I started to seriously write, though, that’s when it came together.”
And it came together fast. After she graduated from Brown University, Carpenter returned to the Washington, DC-area where she spent much of her childhood. She re-entered the area’s music scene, which she had joined before she went to Brown, and soon had a recording contract with Columbia Records. She spent nearly twenty years at the company and sold over 13 million albums before moving onto Rounder Records where she continues to release much-loved, critically-acclaimed albums. A multi-GRAMMY-winning singer-songwriter, Carpenter also recently joined the ranks of Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins and Joan Baez as a recipient of the “Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award” from the Americana Music Association.
But if you were to stumble into a Carpenter concert without knowing who she is, or even bump into her in the supermarket, you’d never know the well-earned celebrity she holds.
At the second of two sold-out shows last week in Alexandria, VA, on—yes, a cold, rainy weekday night—Carpenter waved the audience’s cheers aside, smiling almost shyly. Dressed in a dark jacket over a white shirt and clean, pressed jeans, Carpenter seemed as excited as a music newcomer to take the stage with her five-piece band.
When Carpenter and the players began to work their way through the set—ranging from songs she has written for her next album and fan favorites including “Passionate Kisses,” “I Take My Chances” and “The Hard Way”—it was impossible not to feel the palatable excitement of the crowd as the musical mastery unfolded.
Call me—and likely the rest of the audience—hopeless romantics, but Carpenter’s husky, emotive voice and equally expressive guitar playing backed by her stellar band mates cast a true musical spell over the crowd.
Perhaps that’s because of the way she and her band seemed to effortlessly move from traditional country hits to more introspective folk-Americana tracks before allowing her songs to teeter on the brink of rock. Maybe the spell was cast because for all her virtuosity, Carpenter’s music and on-stage banter often revolve around the brutal path she hints she’s followed in her quest for love. Of course, it could also be that although she suffered a near fatal pulmonary embolism in 2007, Carpenter has not only thrived but kept an almost girlish joyfulness in her playing and singing.
“The audiences are so great and welcoming,” said Carpenter prior to the tour. “Road testing songs [before they're recorded] is so great and people are so great to listen. I’m still promoting my record but now I can open up the set list a bit more and play songs that I haven’t played in a while. It’s so much fun and the sets go by so fast.”
It’s hard to think of a nationally-known artist whose words, like their music, are more genuine than that.
Find out more about Mary Chapin Carpenter, her music and her upcoming tour dates on her Web site.