Like the majority of the artists in the ‘Essentials’ feature Mary Chapin Carpenter will be familiar to many. 35 years after her country leaning debut ‘Hometown Girl’ Carpenter continues to cement a reputation as one of the finest artists of her generation. Her five Grammys may date back to the distant days of the 20th century but her influence and relevance and the respect with which she is held in the industry can be illustrated with a 2022 nomination for ‘One Night Lonely’, a two hour long solo concert to an empty auditorium in Vienna, Virginia in the middle of lockdown.
Interestingly this latest nomination is in the best folk album category. Early awards were firmly in the country camp and the fact that this is how she was viewed is evidenced by her regular appearance in CMA and ACM lists. The fact that her last nomination in these country circles was in the early 90s emphasises not just a subtle change in musical direction at that time but also that Carpenter never really did fit comfortably in this camp. Certainly, after those first two or three albums anyone hearing those albums now would file them confidently under the americana heading.
These 10 songs may not be the Grammy winners or the ones that might normally feature high in any ‘best of’ list but they do span the full length and breadth of a wonderfully productive career. They must be, as in any feature of this kind, a very personal selection but they are all lovingly and carefully constructed, sung with a warmth and feeling that is uniquely Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Number 10: ‘Note on a Windshield’ from ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’ (2016)
Mary Chapin recruited Dave Cobb to produce this 2016 album and on this lovely piece of melancholy his gut string guitar ably compliments a typically thoughtful and wistful lyric. Carpenter has always been a storyteller and here she ponders the passing of time and roads not taken. “Time you wish you could get back somehow, when you see how fast its flying by now”.
Number 9: ‘Late For Your Life’ from ‘Time* Sex* Love*’ (2001)
The asterisks in the album title are deliberate. It was Carpenter’s long-time collaborator John Jennings who filled in the blanks: Time is the great gift, sex is the great equaliser, love is the great mystery. For this album, Carpenter decided she wasn’t going to concentrate on commercial concerns, such as radio and retail viability, choosing instead to focus only on the music. The album came on the back of a five year hiatus with Carpenter pushing back against what she saw as the unwelcome pressure imposed on her previous album. The album was very much a shift in style and this track could almost be a pre-curser to ‘Windshield’ with an entreat to not let life pass us by.
Number 8: ‘Elysium’ from ‘Between Here And Gone’ (2004)
‘Between Here and Gone’ was to be Carpenter’s final album for a major label (Columbia) and the first of a number of albums Mary Chapin was to produce alongside Matt Rollings whose fiddle features prominently here. The reviews of the time saw the album as the label’s push to address her declining commercial fortunes. A roots music website wrote at the time that certain songs on the album, including ‘Elysium’ were “amorphous and boring”. That reviewer would certainly disagree with my own long held belief that ‘Between Here And Gone’ is up there with Carpenter’s best. Many of the songs are Carpenter’s reflections on 9/11 but ‘Elysium’ celebrates Mary Chapin’s 2002 marriage, a song tempered in hindsight by her subsequent divorce eight years later.
Number 7: ‘Never Had It So Good’ from ‘State of The Heart’ (1989)
From Carpenter’s second album ‘Never Had It So Good’ very much reflects her early country leanings and allows us to share here a rare Mary Chapin Carpenter video. As well as being a co-write with producer John Jennings the track and album is significant in bringing long-time friend, musical collaborator and touring partner Shawn Colvin on board, featuring on background vocals here and throughout the album.
Number 6: ‘You Win Again’ from ‘Shooting Straight in the Dark’ (1990)
Mary Chapin’s third album perhaps gives the first glimpse of the songwriting and storytelling talent that would shift her ultimately towards the americana camp. While this little belter could be a companion piece to ‘Never Had It So Good’ in tone and feel by this time Carpenter was really starting to demonstrate her ability to paint pictures with her lyrics. A number of tracks on the album show a maturity that could easily have fitted comfortably into her 21st century offerings.
Number 5: ‘Rhythm of the Blues’ from ‘Come On Come On’ (1992)
‘Come On Come On’ proved to be Carpenter’s most commercially successful album including as it does a number of the artist’s most popular tracks. While Mary Chapin was 1993 CMA Female Vocalist of The Year and a Grammy winner with ‘I Feel Lucky’ the track featured here is one of the more reflective and understated on an album otherwise chock full of more upbeat and commercially appealing songs like ‘Passionate Kisses’ and ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’. The track features Rosanne Cash on background vocals.
Number 4: ‘Jubilee’ from ‘Stones in the Road’ (1994)
If ‘Come On Come On’ was Mary Chapin’s zenith commercially then the follow up ‘Stones in the Road’ was to be the one that secured her a Grammy for Country Album of The Year. It is an album that has already been championed by this reviewer elsewhere on this website and remains an album to return to time and again. Highlighting tracks from a classic album is always a challenge but the theme of championing underdog songs continues here with ‘Jubilee’, a song of hope and compassion and of fighting our own inner demons.
Number 3: ‘What If We Went To Italy’ from ‘A Place In The World’ (1996)
‘A Place In The World’ was the album that prompted Carpenter’s aforementioned five year hiatus. Feeling pressured into writing for commercial appeal rather than selecting her own choices Mary Chapin was rather dismissive of the result. Those blatantly commercial tracks fall rather flat but, as ever with this artist, her ability to wring every drop of emotion from the slower, more melancholy tracks, remained undimmed. ‘What If We Went To Italy’ plays out as a love song to a lazy Tuscan lifestyle of reading and lazing and dreaming and of reflection “What if the ancients were lazy like us, too blissed out to paint, to sketch or to sculpt”. Featuring accordion and mandola the song is a slice of Italian sunshine.
Number 2: ‘Goodnight America’ from ‘Between Here And Gone’ (2004)
The second selection from ‘Between Here And Gone’, this song has the protagonist as a stranger in various US cities, loneliness at its core. Carpenter’s described it as a song about every road trip she has ever taken, in a way, about the fine line between the sense of being missing and of being lost. It is Mary Chapin at her most evocative, the lonely road trip brought to life with subtle accompaniment of acoustic guitar, keyboards, viola and cello. Gorgeous.
Number 1: ‘Stones in the Road’ from ‘Stones in the Road’ (1994)
The title track to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s finest album is beautifully crafted and sung; it was written as a reminder of the role models that she grew up with in the 1960s. A message to the current generation that the principles of men such as Martin Luther King and JFK should not be forgotten and instilled in each subsequent generation. It is a sublime piece of songwriting and imagery that remains, almost thirty years later, a warning against selfishness and greed “We pencil in, we cancel out, we crave the corner suite, we kiss your ass, we make you hold, we doctor the receipt.”