Mary Chapin Carpenter
There are very few artists whose CD's I'll buy without listening to at least 3 or 4 tracks. Lyle Lovett, The Indigo Girls - folks I've loved for years and probably always will.
Count Mary Chapin Carpenter among those artists. It wasn't always so. I'd heard a few songs here and there, but I wasn't a die-hard fan. I was at my mum's house one weekend a few years ago, and noticed she had Hometown Girl, one of MCC's earliest offerings. Curious, I gave it a listen. It was a little more country than folk, but the woman could sing! Her voice is a mixture of strength and tenderness; her lyrics are at the same time fresh and nostalgic. I was surprised to find the song "DowntownTrain" included, although it would be a year or so later before I realized it was a Tom Waits cover, not Rod Stewart. I also listened to her sing about love, family, and those we champion as heroes. I was hooked.
Another of her earlier works is State Of The Heart. This collection from 1989 includes "Never Had It So Good," "Quittin' Time," and "This Shirt." It still struck me as country, but by this time I just didn't care. To borrow (ok, steal) a phrase, there's something about Mary...!
1990's Shooting Straight In The Dark is one of my favorites. "Down At The Twist And Shout" pays homage to cajun music, and one of the most feel-good songs I've ever heard. Friends of mine who don't like country even dig this song. Ms. Carpenter really knows how to have fun, and she takes her listeners along for the ride. She also weaves a compelling story of the comet with "Halley Came To Jackson." It's a lilting, pretty tune that also showcases one hell of a fiddle.
With the above album, she shows a style that transcends the "country music" label. In 1992, she blew me away again with Come On, Come On. There's not a bad song on this CD. "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" shows what happens when one woman decides to break free of her role as traditional mother and wife. "I feel Lucky" shows us her sense of humor and carefree attitude ("hey the stars might lie, but the numbers never do"). "Passionate Kisses," "The Bug" and "I Take My Chances" also spring from this collection. It would be easier to name songs from this album that never received airplay. One of those songs is "Only A Dream," a beautiful, bittersweet tale of a little sister remembering childhood. It's one of my favorite MCC songs of all time.
1994's Grammy-Award-Winning Stones In The Road opens with "Why Walk When You Can Fly." Between the vocal and instrumental arrangements, and the message of the song, this is MCC at her best. It has beautiful harmonies, great fiddle and piano, and an old-time folk feeling that makes you want to sing. "Tender When I Want To Be," "Shut Up And Kiss Me" and the title song are the songs I remember gaining airplay, but true to form there's not a bad song in the bunch.
A Place In The World, released in 1996, is the CD I'm least familiar with. "Let Me Into Your Heart" is the only track I remember hearing on the radio, but that was around the time I stopped listening to country music. I still buy MCC, though. By now, I don't think of her as country so much as one of the coolest storytellers with one of the best voices of any genre.
When she recently released Party Doll And Other Favorites, I thought I would be familiar with most of its songs. This isn't like other greatest hit albums. First of all, she actually put most of my favorite songs on the collection. Second, she included several live renditions of her songs, giving them a new twist. "Down At The Twist And Shout" is a live performance from Superbowl XXXI. "Quittin' Time" is a slow, just-shy-of-ballad song now, live from the Ryman Auditorium.
Third and best of all, there are two new songs, and two songs that were previously only available on various artist albums. "10,000 Miles" was used in the movie Fly Away Home, and it is gorgeous. "Grow Old With Me" was a huge hit from the John Lennon Tribute, Working Class Hero. It, too, is beautiful. "Party Doll," new for her, is a Mick Jagger tune, which just goes to show how wide a range MCC has to share.
If you've heard Ms. Carpenter's work, you know I'm not exaggerating her abilities. If you haven't, what are you waiting for? Start with Party Doll And Other Favorites and work backward. Don't be put off by the country label. It's definitely worth the dough.