Columbia Records’ strategy to market Mary Chapin Carpenter as a country artist is said to have begun with the release of her breakthrough sophomore album State of the Heart (reviewed by Meg last year as part of our Class of ’89 coverage). Prior to that her music was more heavily influenced by folk than country; her 1987 debut album Hometown Girl is a good example of the type of music she was making before she found her commercial niche.
I can’t help wondering who the intended audience was for this album. In its original, independent-release incarnation, I imagine that this was more of a straight folk album. It was re-recorded when Mary landed her deal with Columbia, and producer Steve Buckingham — known for his work with Dolly Parton, Ricky Van Shelton, and Tammy Wynette, among others — was brought in as a co-producer, in order to make the album more commercially appealing. It’s odd that a Nashville producer would be brought aboard before the decision was made to market Mary as a country artist, and stranger yet, that once his commercial flourishes were add to the album, Columbia declined to release any singles and seems to have made little or no attempt to promote Mary to country radio.
Since I’m not a huge Mary Chapin Carpenter fan, I didn’t buy this album when it was first released. Like most people, I didn’t even become aware of her until State of the Heart was released. As a result, I listened to the album for the first time when I was preparing to write this review, which gives me a different perspective than if I were looking back at an album that I’d been listening to for over twenty years. My first impression was that while Hometown Girl is not Mary’s very best work, it is vastly superior to the majority of the overproduced music coming out of Nashville today. Even at this early stage in her career, Mary’s talent as a songwriter is readily apparent. She was the sole writer on seven of the album’s ten songs, and was a co-writer with John Jennings (who co-produced the album with Buckingham) on an eighth song. Her skill in writing literate lyrics is reminiscent of fellow folkie Nanci Griffith, who was making her own attempt to find mainstream commercial success on a major Nashville label around the same time that Hometown Girl was released.
Things get off to a good start with the mid-tempo “A Lot Like Me”, which is one of my favorite songs on the album. The Steve Buckingham influences — the piano, fiddle and autoharp — are readily apparent on what was probably originally conceived as an acoustic guitar-only arrangement. “Other Streets and Other Towns” is likewise mostly acoustic and more folk-leaning than “A Lot Like Me”, but it is unfortunately marred by its 1980s’ synthesizer-tinged production, which sounds very dated today. The title track has better stood the test of time. Piano-driven along with an understated string section — and some drums that likely were not on the original independent release, “Hometown Girl” is a beautiful ballad with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s signature introspective lyrics.
It is on “Family Hands”, however, that Mary truly shines as a songwriter. More than any other track on the album, this song gives us a greater sense of who she is as both a musician and a songwriter. The sparsely-arranged acoustic track is the least “dressed up to be more commercially appealing” song on the album. Though I’ve not heard the original independent version, I suspect that this one was the least altered by Nashville. The lyrics are rich with imagery as the narrator tells the story of visiting her husband or boyfriend’s childhood home. He shows her the railroad where his father worked, as well as the house where his grandmother still lives. His childhood memories are likened to a patchwork quilt, sewn by the women (his mother and grandmother) who raised him. It’s not explained why his father’s participation is downplayed; he isn’t mentioned except in passing as having worked at the rail yard:
Raised by the women who are stronger than you know
A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth
By your mother and her mother, the weavers of your cloth
And a rich man you might never be, they’d love you just the same
They’ve handed down so much to you besides your Christian name
And the spoken word won’t heal you like the laying on of hands
Belonging to the ones who raised you to a man
“A Road Is Just A Road”, written with John Jennings, provides a welcome change of pace after “Family Hands.” It gives the listener just a glimpse of Mary’s more uptempo material, which would appear more frequently on future albums. After “A Road Is Just A Road” is a return to ballads with “Come On Home”, one of only two songs on the album in which Mary’s name did not appear in the songwriting credits. It’s a beautiful ballad written by the well-known team of Pat Bunch, Mary Ann Kennedy and Pam Rose. It might have stood a chance at becoming a hit at country radio for a more established artist, but most likely, radio would have turned a deaf ear to a ballad by an unknown artist.
Overall, the songs on this album are well written, well sung, and nicely produced. But unfortunately, the album lacks synergy; it simply isn’t greater than the sum of its parts. Its fundamental flaw is that it is too ballad-heavy. On their own the songs are quite enjoyable, but played in succession, the lack of variety in tempo makes for a rather dull listening experience. I was very bored the first time I listened to the album and by the time I got to the last three tracks I just wanted it to be over already, which leads to the album’s other major flaw: most of the songs are just too long. Eight of the ten songs clock in at over four minutes in length, with “Other Streets and Other Towns” clocking in at five minutes, and “Hometown Girl” and “Heroes and Heroines” at slightly under five minutes. Most of the time it shouldn’t take that long to get one’s point across. After a while it seems self-indulgent and makes for a somewhat tedious listening experience. I will admit, however, that I liked this album a lot more the second time I listened to it, so it does seem to be one of those albums that grows on the listener with repeated playings.
Hometown Girl is available digitally from Amazon and iTunes. Additionally, it can be purchased on a recordable CD, manufactured on demand, from Amazon. It’s not essential listening, except for die-hard fans, but is worth checking out, even if it is only shuffle-played along with some of Mary’s later albums.