Mary Chapin Carpenter: Classic or Dud?

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I was out tonight, landing for a little while somewhere that had a Country muzak channel. After a few rounds of Bro Country, they played what I assume was one of her later hits. To say it stuck out like a sore thumb is an understatement, and I got to thinking for the first time in a long long time about Mary Chapin Carpenter.

She was HUGE in the early '90s, easily one of the biggest new female artists in Country, and also one of the only ones at the time to cross over and get good ink from the Pop/Rock press, probably because she was way more singer-songwriter-y than most of what was coming out of Nashville, and also--correct me if I'm wrong--she was one of the last New Tradionalists to blow up before Alt Country really started happening. Plus she was a guaranteed good time on a talk show or awards broadcast and a big booster of Shawn Colvin and Lucinda Williams to boot--all of which, along with her nice hooky songwriting, for me lands her in the "classic" camp (despite never owning a note of her music, I've got four or five of her hits bouncing around my head now as I type just on memory alone, no need to check youtube for a refresher).

But then she kinda disappeared...or not? I look up her discography, and since the Party Doll comp (the last time I was really aware of her releasing stuff) she's put out SEVEN new albums, including a Christmas set and a orchestral rerecord collection that dropped back in January. Most of these are on Zoë Records, her home since 2007.

I kind of wonder how she sounds today, both to listeners from the time hearing it again, and to Taylor/Miranda/Kacey stans coming across this stuff for the first time. (sub-question: Do you actually hear any of this stuff on the radio anymore?)

BONUS FEATURE: Xgau being gross in the Consumer Guide

A Place in the World [Columbia, 1996]
Why do I believe this Nashville liberal showers three times a day and doesn't think sex is the right place to get your face wet? Is it the Stones riff that marches by as neatly as the quaint mandolin-and-harpsichord figure? The voice that never doubts its own clarity? Creative writing like "The sepia tones of a lost afternoon/Cradle a curio storefront"? As dull as Al Gore and Ralph Nader put together. B-

Interior. Ibiza Bar (C. Grisso/McCain), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 07:31 (six years ago) link

she sings "Passionate Kisses" more believably than Lucinda Williams

though I don't think of her as a New Traditionalist? though tbf she was one of my introductions to current country music: Come On Come On singles got a lot of play on VH1 at the time; so I don't know how she was lumped in, tribally. just sounded like pop music to me, synth textures behind the pedal steel, etc.

"He Thinks He'll Keep Her" is a good song, one I'm always happy to hear on my local classic country station

wonder how she'd approach Brandy Clark's songs

Euler, Wednesday, 19 March 2014 13:58 (six years ago) link

she sings "Passionate Kisses" more believably than Lucinda Williams

I don't think so, and her arrangement is classic identikit nineties country production. She also cowrote a dumb song with Cyndi Lauper about pigeons.

I used to confuse her with Trisha Yearwood, but it turns out I like "She's In Love With the Boy."

Bryan Fairy (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:15 (six years ago) link

Stopped paying attention after A Place in the World, but Come On Come On and followup Stones in the Road are both Classic in my world. Agree that her's is the superior version of "Passionate Kisses," though I like Lucinda's too. "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "House of Cards" were the kinds of things that sounded profound to fifteen-year-old me, and while I can now far more easily fit them in with larger songwriting traditions, they're still great songs. COCO's title track is haunting and lovely.

Not sure I would classify her as New Traditionalist, either; at least at the time (and, admittedly, this was a lot of my teenage countryphobia talking), I would have called a folkie. Were the aforementioned records to come out today, I don't think they'd be lumped in with Taylor Swift any more than they would be with Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood or anyone like that. Kasey Musgraves (at least based on the two songs of her's that I've heard) is probably a closer analog.

Inside Lewellyn Sinclair (cryptosicko), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:16 (six years ago) link

OTM. She's closer to what we'd now call "adult alternative contemporary" or something.

Bryan Fairy (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:21 (six years ago) link

"adult alternative contemporary"? wtf - I love these US radio genres

licorice oratorio (baaderonixx), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:31 (six years ago) link

a genre for everyone!

Bryan Fairy (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:34 (six years ago) link

I'm a grown ass alternative-nation man now!

licorice oratorio (baaderonixx), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 14:38 (six years ago) link

"Down at the Twist and Shout" is the only one of her singles that I still hear getting any recurrent airplay on the modern country stations. Our local classic country station has a handful of her singles in moderate rotation, though.

Definitely wouldn't classify her as part of the NeoTraditionalist movement that included acts like Randy Travis, Clint Black, and Patty Loveless. Even her early records had a strong folk bent, and singles like "You Win Again" and any of the hits from Come On, Come On had more in common, production-wise, with the likes of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and early Indigo Girls than with what Alan Jackson and Suzy Bogguss were recording in the early 90s. Hence the VH-1 rotation and the broad appeal that led to "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" getting a surprise Record of the Year nomination at the Grammys.

Come On, Come On and Stones in the Road are no-question classics, and she released quite a few terrific singles both before and after that pair of albums. After the Party Doll comp, though, I've found her consistently dull, delivering over-written lyrics in hushed, reverent tones. At this point in her career, I don't even know what her primary demo would be: The Americana artists that get airplay on AAA stations are a whole lot livelier than what she's putting out, and when your music is sleepier than what, say, The Civil Wars are doing...

jon_oh, Wednesday, 19 March 2014 15:30 (six years ago) link

She lived around DC for a long while and came out of the DC folk scene before getting into country and honky-tonk. I used to go to the long since gone Twist & Shout club in that American Legion room that hosted zydeco, rockabilly, country and more. She now performs at the 5,000 seat Wolf Trap Park outdoor concert location in Virginia near DC every summer. But I don't think I have ever listened to any of her albums-- just know the "Twist & Shout" song.

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 19 March 2014 15:52 (six years ago) link

I love everything she's done since she became Ad-Con Country and consider The Calling a masterpiece that I file right next to Joni Mitchell. I know that's quasi-heretical but MCC is just that fucking good imo.

(or if you must, "data") (underrated aerosmith bootlegs I have owned), Wednesday, 19 March 2014 17:43 (six years ago) link

MCC is one of the most underrated songwriters I know of. She's still doing good work, too. Listen to "Houston" from The Calling or "Transcendental Reunion" from her latest.

banjoboy, Wednesday, 19 March 2014 23:50 (six years ago) link

one year passes...

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/music/john-jennings-guitarist-and-producer-dies-at-61/2015/10/19/d6f624f0-766a-11e5-a958-d889faf561dc_story.html

Her producer and guitarist, from cancer. I liked "Down at the Twist & Shout"

curmudgeon, Tuesday, 20 October 2015 13:23 (four years ago) link

seven months pass...

Oh hey, this new record is pretty fine indeed.

Ⓓⓡ. (Johnny Fever), Thursday, 26 May 2016 03:47 (four years ago) link

four years pass...

New record is great

corrs unplugged, Monday, 14 September 2020 13:07 (one week ago) link

Hmmm, maybe I need to listen to it more.

curmudgeon, Wednesday, 16 September 2020 02:45 (six days ago) link

I've had it on repeat, it's quite subtle but I like that in a record

corrs unplugged, Wednesday, 16 September 2020 07:37 (six days ago) link


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