My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Shooting Straight In The Dark’

Mary Chapin Carpenter’s third album was released in 1990, and gave her a real breakthrough. Produced with longterm collaborator John Jennings, the record saw her draw on a wide variety of influences. The material (all written by Carpenter herself) is a mixture of slow songs showcasing the velvety texture of her voice, and more commercial up-tempo numbers. It is far from traditional country with fiddle on just two tracks and steel conspicuous only by its complete absence, but it is one of her best records.

The intense lead single ‘You Win Again’ reached #16, peaking in 1991. It’s one of my favorite MCC songs, a despairing mid-tempo tale of a woman in love but aware she is in a losing situation:

I’ve been holding my breath just wondering when
You’ll make some kind of decision
To let me in or let me go
I’ll always lose if I never know
Where I fit in
Baby you win again

The insistently bluesy rock ‘n roll cover ‘Right Now’ followed it to radio and did about as well, reaching #15. The third single, though, was Mary’s biggest hit to date. The irresistible Cajun-styled ‘Down At the Twist And Shout’, featuring Cajun band BeauSoleil, just missed the top spot, peaking at #2, and won the singer her first Grammy. Atypical of most of the artist’s work, it is one of her best remembered songs and a sheer delight.

The final single, the measured ‘Going Out Tonight’, written with John Jennings, was less successful, making #14. It is a well-written song with a sultry vocal about a woman “going out tonight to find myself a friend” in the aftermath of a failed relationship.

My personal favorite track is the charming story song ‘Halley Came To Jackson’ about a family watching Halley’s Comet in 1910, and the baby seeing it again as an old woman 76 years later from the same back porch in Jackson. Tasteful fiddle and dulcimer from Mark O’Connor and John McCutcheon respectively underpin the pretty melody, and the Desert Rose Band’s Herb Pedersen sings backing vocals on the album’s loveliest (and most country) moment. The story was inspired by the life of novelist Eudora Welty, and was adapted some years later into an illustrated children’s book. It is still one of my favorite Mary Chapin Carpenter songs.

The album’s title comes from a line in the piano-led ‘Can’t Take Love For Granted’ as MCC reacts to a relationship’s sudden, unexpected end by meditating on the fragile nature of love

And now my world is ending
With a chance remark…

You can speak what’s on your mind
If you’ve got a gambler’s heart
You can be the truth incarnate
You can shoot straight in the dark
You can pull the moon down baby
With a lasso made of stars
But you can’t take love for granted

It is one of several downbeat songs brooding about the loss or failure of love, including the rhythmic ‘The More Things Change’ and the beautifully understated delivery of ‘What You Didn’t Say’, where the protagonist sadly realizes her man doesn’t want her any more:

No one belongs where they’re not wanted
You’re just a ghost and my heart is haunted

‘When She’s Gone’ is a delicately sung ballad with an understated sadness addressed to a drinker who can’t see what his neglect of his wife will do:

You don’t beg and you don’t plead
Or miss a thing that you don’t need
She knew by the way you kissed her
When she’s gone you won’t miss her

This is a really excellent song and one of the highlights on the record.

The poppy ‘Middle Ground’ paints a well-observed and lyrically downbeat picture of a single and sometimes lonely 30-something woman.

The album closes with the spiritual and folky ‘The Moon And St Christopher’, a confessional lyric and hushed vocal featuring Shawn Colvin:

Now I’ve paid my dues cause I have owed them
But I’ve paid a price sometimes
For being such a stubborn woman
In such stubborn times
I’ve run from the arms of lovers
I’ve run from the eyes of friends
I’ve run from the hands of kindness
Just because I can

But now I‘ve grown and I speak like a woman
And I see with a woman’s eyes
And an open door is to me now
Like the saddest of goodbyes

It ends the record on a downbeat note, perhaps, but also a very personal one which confirms that at heart Mary Chapin Carpenter fits neatly into the tradition of confessional singer-songwriters, if less obviously into any particular genre.

I don’t like this album quite as much as its immediate predecessor State Of The Heart, but it was certified platinum and marked an advance in Carpenter’s career. It is undeniably a very fine record from an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter, but in many respects the music is more akin to AC or classy adult pop than country. However, country radio was increasingly receptive to the quality of her music, and with the breakthrough hit ‘Down At the Twist And Shout’, it cemented her status as a bona fide country star.

Grade: A

The album is readily available for purchase.

4 responses to “Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Shooting Straight In The Dark’

  1. bob May 6, 2010 at 9:35 am

    i agree with you regarding “Halley Came to Jackson”. Who else but MCC would come up with such an unusual subject for a song. My second favorite on “Shooting Straight…” (my wife’s favorite) is Middle Ground. When I hear it I think of the Pam Tillis Song, “All the Good Ones Are Gone” by Dean Dillon and Bob McDill.

  2. Erik May 9, 2010 at 11:57 am

    This is my second favorite Mary Chapin album after “Stones In The Road”.

  3. Tom May 10, 2010 at 7:55 am

    …when i bought that album at the time of it’s release, only knowing “down at the twist and shout”, i was quite disappointed. today, i’m still a little disappointed that there are not more singer/songwriters like mcc.

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