Mary Chapin Carpenter is not your traditional-bred country star. Born in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of a major publishing executive, she lived briefly abroad in Japan before the family settled in Washington, D.C. for the duration of her childhood. The young Carpenter attended private schools before graduating from Ivy League Brown University in 1981 with a degree in American Civilization.
Though she had grown up loving music and playing the guitar in her spare time, she really had no plans to make music a career. At her father’s urging, she performed at an open-mic night at a local Washington club. She was soon playing the club circuit in and around Washington. During this time, she met John Jennings, who would figure largely in her career. He encouraged the songwriter in Carpenter to blossom and with him, she began performing original material. She soon landed a deal with Columbia Records.
Carpenter’s first album, Hometown Girl, charted no hits, but did receive a little airplay on college stations and public radio. It wasn’t until Columbia began to push Mary Chapin Carpenter as a country artist that she would find a national audience. Her second album would prove to be her breakthrough to the country audience. Released in 1989 and charting her first hit singles, State of the Heart would plant Mary Chapin Carpenter in with the fabled Class of ’89 in country music. The first single from State of the Heart, ‘How Do’ sailed into the top 20 of the country singles chart, and started a run of successful singles for Carpenter – all at least top 20 or better – that lasted through 1995. In 1990, she was awarded the Top New Female Vocalist trophy from the Academy of Country Music. That Fall, though she didn’t win any awards, she stole the show at the CMA Awards with her performance of the witty and playful ‘Opening Act’.
In 1992, she released the landmark set Come On Come On. Producing an unprecedented 7 hit singles and selling more than 5 million copies, it would be Carpenter’s most successful album. The singles from this album would chart from 1992 to 1994, during which time she picked up the Top Female Vocalist trophy from the Academy of Country Music and back-to-back awards for Female Vocalist at the Country Music Association show in 1992 and ’93. Meanwhile, she started a still-unmatched run of wins for Best Country Female Vocal Performance from the Grammy’s, winning the award consecutive 4 years from 1992 to ’95.
Following the mega-success of Come On Come On, Stones In The Road was released in 1994 to much anticipation. It would become Carpenter’s first and only #1 album on the country charts upon its debut, and eventually sell 2 million copies. ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’, the lead single from Stones In The Road is also Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lone chart-topper among 21 top 40 hits, including 9 top 10’s. 1996’s A Place In The World was less successful than its predecessors, not producing any major hits – one top 20 with ‘Let Me Into Your Heart’ going to #11 – and moving just over 500,000 copies to be certified gold.
Following A Place In The World, Mary Chapin Carpenter went on an extended hiatus from recording. Her 1999 greatest hits album, Party Doll and Other Favorites contained 2 new songs, but she wouldn’t release a new studio album for nearly 5 years. When she returned to the studio, gone were the polished sounds and hooky melodies of her ’90s hits. Time*Sex*Love is a concept album of sorts, with the songs revolving around the three punctuated themes in the album’s title. Most notable though, was that this was Mary Chapin Carpenter getting back to her folkie roots. It didn’t produce any country hits, but was widely acclaimed, and set the stage for the next chapter in Carpenter’s career.
The past decade has seen Mary Chapin Carpenter emerge as a favorite in the growing AAA and Americana formats. In 2004, she released the moody and introspective Between Here and Gone. This would be her last release for Columbia, her label of nearly 20 years. In 2006, she signed a deal with Rounder Records’ imprint Zoe, and her first album for that label The Calling hit stores in March 2007. Melodic and clever, it is widely seen as Carpenter’s magnum opus (so far). In 2008, she released Come Darkness, Come Light, her first Christmas collection. A third album for the label, The Age of Miracles, followed just last week.
I’m not sure today’s music climate would allow an artist like Mary Chapin Carpenter to thrive commercially like she did in the 1990s. Her career, and subsequent successes, are a prime example of the wealth of talent and influences that Music City can so ably combine. And even though later years have seen her stray farther and farther from any resemblance to traditional country, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s songs still speak to the same audience as country music. Her music is woven with heartache, love, loss, and most importantly, an innate sensibility of the human condition. This month, we’ll be exploring that music and hopefully uncovering some forgotten gems and revisiting old favorites. We hope you enjoy our look into one of country music’s most interesting and talented artists all through the month of May.