As country music continues to concentrate on image over substance, thank goodness for Mary Chapin Carpenter
By Michael McCall
JUNE 7, 1999: Mary Chapin Carpenter occupies a unique position in the country music world these days. She's the last of the handful of acclaimed singer-songwriters who were signed in the mid '80s, a time when country music went through what Steve Earle describes as "a credibility scare." While most of Carpenter's peers have severed ties with Music Row--often because they had no choice--the Virginia-based singer-songwriter maintains a major-label contract in Nashville, even as the country music business moves further and further away from the kind of music she makes.
"When I got a record deal, it was very much a time when country music was embracing a lot of different kinds of artists--from more singer-songwriter and acoustic types of artists to rockabilly and blues to Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle and people like that," Carpenter said during a recent Nashville visit to film a special for Country Music Television. "When I was first signed in Nashville, someone like Rosanne Cash just meant everything to me, and she continues to. It was people like that who got me excited about finding myself in this place that I didn't expect to find myself."
Today, however, none of the people Carpenter mentions remains part of Nashville's major-label music business. Artists like Earle, Lovett, Cash, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, k.d. lang, K.T. Oslin, the O'Kanes, and Kevin Welch are no longer associated with Music Row. Nor are their ilk still courted by country record executives. That makes Carpenter the lone holdout of a past era; as underscored by her recently released career retrospective, Party Doll and Other Favorites, she's the last of the mature, acoustic-based singer-songwriters who still has a chance on the country music charts.
As she acknowledges, she's always followed a different path than the one taken by most popular Nashville artists. But her success also suggests that the route she took was wide and welcoming, and that perhaps Nashville made a mistake in not providing better support for those who could have followed her.
"I've been fortunate in that the audiences that I've played in front of have been a real diverse lot of people who find music in a lot of different places," she says. "It's been really great to get on with as wide an amount of people as possible. I'm real proud of that aspect of my career."
In a sense, Carpenter was a crossover artist before Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill enjoyed hits on both the pop and country charts. Only Carpenter's audience didn't consist of kids and teeny-boppers; instead, she attracted a following of adult fans who enjoyed both the aching romanticism and breezy sense of fun in her music. But country lost the opportunity to capture that audience when it failed to develop a radio format that would interest such fans. That left Carpenter as an odd success story rather than a groundbreaking pioneer: She may have burst many preconceptions about country music and its fan base, but record companies didn't step in to capitalize on her success.
For Carpenter, though, this steady career momentum has allowed her to act independently while, at least for the time being, enjoying the all-important financial support of Columbia Records. "I try not to worry too much about following the rules that some people in the music business think are important," she explains. "I mean, I'm a world-class worrier. But I obsess over strange things, like song lyrics, instead of about how famous I am this week."
By breaking rules, she's also broken stereotypes. Fans in both country and pop music recognize Carpenter as a distinctly skilled songwriter as well as a subtly sensitive, and sometimes slyly comic, interpreter of her own lyrics. Indeed, Carpenter's success rests wholly on songs rather than on image--another rarity in modern country music. One of the few country singers to write nearly all of her own material, she takes a multidimensional look at how independent women make their way in the modern world. Those songs have placed her among the most widely respected artists in country music in the last decade. In all, she's earned six Grammy Awards, as well as back-to-back Female Vocalist of the Year honors from the Country Music Association.
Beyond that, she's also respected for how she's been able to succeed on her own terms. She still lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., instead of in Nashville. Her albums are still produced by her guitarist and old friend, John Jennings, instead of one of country music's better-known record crafters.
"I've never quite been able to conform to some of the ways things are supposed to be done, I guess," she says. "I've never met the expectation of having a new record out every year or making sure I have a current hit on the radio. That kind of thinking is based on a fear that people will forget you, and record companies and other aspects of this business can kind of feed that fear. But you have to try and counteract it any way you can."
This summer, she marks her 12th year as a recording artist by taking another unusual step--releasing Party Doll and Other Favorites. She resisted putting out a greatest-hits collection for years, she says. "It's almost like it hints at an early demise," she says. When her record company suggested it was time to consider a hits package, she retorted, "Are you trying to tell me something?"
Once she thought it over, she figured the record company was right. But if she was going to put together such a collection, she didn't want it to follow the formula of other greatest-hits albums, which tend to be "somewhat generic," she notes.
So she came up with a concept she liked: "Why not explore the possibility of putting together alternative versions of those hits?" The result is a 17-song CD that includes live versions of well-known Carpenter tunes, including her 1997 halftime performance at Super Bowl XXXI, a 1995 appearance from The Late Show With David Letterman, a couple of songs originally done for PBS specials, and three songs culled from acoustic concerts. The album also includes songs from a movie soundtrack, from a lullaby collection, and from a John Lennon tribute.
"I like playing with expectations," she says. "Musically, that's led me to taking something familiar and occasionally doing it a little bit differently."
For instance, several of the live songs feature drastically different arrangements than their studio versions. "Part of what I like about playing live is that it's like playing on a ledge," she says. "It keeps you on your toes, which is how it should be."
With Party Doll, Carpenter is back on the ledge, by herself--which is where she's been ever since she entered country music. For her, though, it's the only way she'd be happy making music. "I'll do anything to freshen things up a bit," she says.
Thank goodness she continues to get that chance.
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