Mary Chapin Carpenter’s fourth album could also be titled Greatest Hits 1992 – 94. Selling an impressive four-million copies, the disc also contains an unprecedented 7 hit singles, all of which charted in the top 20, with 4 of them going top 5. At the time of the album’s release, and subsequently, Carpenter was riding a wave of success that found her a critical and awards show darling, while also firmly in the good graces of country radio. It’s not often an artist can ably straddle the fence between commercial and critical success, but with her witty brand of folk-country, infused with just enough zest to sell it to the masses, Mary Chapin Carpenter did just that for the first half of her career. Her commercial zenith was reached with Come On Come On, and some would say her artistic peak is also seen on this album.
To lead off, Columbia Records sent the plucky novelty tune ‘I Feel Lucky’ to radio. Mary Chapin Carpenter penned the song with the legendary Don Schlitz and it went to #3 on the singles chart, partly aided by a funny, offbeat music video. Its recurrent status on CMT is one of the first things that made me notice Mary Chapin Carpenter. Still intent on courting the country audience, the disc’s second single is the elegant country duet with traditional crooner Joe Diffie. Two would-be lovers contemplate what they’ll mean to each other as the pair deliver the ballad softly amid a sparse piano-driven arrangement. Peaking at #15, it’s one of the best songs on the album, but one of the lesser successful singles.
A cover of Lucinda Williams’ ‘Passionate Kisses’ followed at radio. The track from the singer-songwriter’s self-titled 1988 album comes to life with Carpenter and John Jenning’s production. The guitars rock and the drums roll to give the song its signature melody while the singer asks for all the things she wants in life, along with ‘passionate kisses from you’ to go with them. Carpenter’s recording earned Williams a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1994 and rose to #4 on the country singles chart.
Also co-written with Don Schlitz, ‘The Hard Way’, more than any other song in her catalog, is the best example of the Mary Chapin Carpenter sound. The guitars are turned up a littler louder than most mixes, the lyrics are brilliant, and the vocals are crisp, confident, and clear. The song itself is a sort of plea for affection from your significant other, but it’s more a collection of nuggets of wisdom, woven into rhyming verses. ‘Show the world a little light when you show it your heart/We’ve got two lives, one we’re given and the other one we make’. Another hit, this stopped just outside the top 10 at #11.
Dire Straits recorded ‘The Bug’ and released it as a single in 1991, taking it to the top 10 of the rock charts. Carpenter’s version was a country hit two years later, peaking at #16. A happy-go-lucky, ‘it happens’ attitude is attached to life’s problems in this unexceptional track written by Mark Knopfler.
‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ has become Mary Chapin Carpenter’s signature song. She wrote it in response to a 1970s Geritol commercial where a man lists all his wife’s duties, and her accomplishment of them, concluding “My wife, I think I’ll keep her.” A picture-perfect marriage is depicted in the lyrics as we listen to the female subject of the song age from 21, wearing her mother’s wedding dress, to having her third child at 29, and finally, starting her life over as a self-imposed single woman at 36, having ‘met her husband at the door’ telling him she doesn’t love him anymore, and maybe she never really did. It’s a startling look inside the nuclear family, and the unhappiness that may be hidden beneath all the duties and responsibilities. The music video for ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ features Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, Pam Tillis, Kathy Mattea, and Emmylou Harris accompanying Carpenter. It’s a clip from a 1993 CBS special Women of Country. This also became the album’s biggest hit, peaking at #2 on the Billboard singles chart, and going to #1 on the Radio & Records chart, Carpenter’s first single to do so.
The album’s seventh single is the clever ‘I Take My Chances’. The lyrics tell of an adventure-hungry soul who doesn’t always play it safe. Opting not to send her dollar to the televangelist and tune into CNN instead, the narrator offers,
Now some people say that you shouldn’t tempt fate
And for them I can not disagree
But I never learned nothing from playing it safe
I say fate should not tempt me
It was lyrics like those, coupled with the irresistible melodies that frame the entire album, that made Mary Chapin Carpenter a literate listener’s favorite. Her songs are those of the 30-something single woman, the heartbroken soul, and the woman with a fire in her belly and a comeback on her lips. The songs on Come On Come On capture all of these feelings and more. It is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s most successful album for a reason: it’s a start-to-finish collection of country music gems, and a perfect snapshot of the wealth of diversity and talent the 90s boom brought to us. It’s a landmark album by every definition, and certainly essential listening to me.
Come On Come On is readily available at all retailers, including amazon.