Mary Chapin Carpenter Biography
Carpenter's most successful album to date remains 1992's Come On Come On, which yielded seven charting country singles and was certified quadruple platinum in the U.S. for sales exceeding four million copies. She followed it with Stones in the Road (1994) and A Place in the World (1996), which both featured hit singles. In the 2000s, Carpenter's albums departed both thematically and musically from her early work, becoming less radio-friendly and more focused on societal and political issues. Her most acclaimed and most topical album to date, The Calling, was released in March 2007. She followed that with The Age of Miracles in April 2010.
Carpenter has won five Grammy Awards, and is the only artist to have won four consecutive Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, which she received from 1992 to 1995. As of 2005, she had sold more than 12 million records.
Carpenter has performed on television shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and Austin City Limits, radio shows such as The Diane Rehm Show and tours frequently, returning to Washington almost every summer to perform at the popular outdoor venue Wolf Trap.
Carpenter was born in Princeton, New Jersey to Chapin Carpenter Jr., a Life Magazine executive, and Mary Bowie Robertson. Carpenter lived in Japan from 1969 to 1971 before moving to Washington, D.C. She attended Princeton Day School, a private coeducational prep school, before graduating from The Taft School in 1976.
Carpenter described her childhood as "pretty typical[ly] suburban," with her musical interests defined chiefly by her sisters' albums of artists such as The Mamas & the Papas, the Beatles, and Judy Collins. When Carpenter was 16 her parents divorced, an event that affected Carpenter and that she wrote about in her song "House of Cards." Carpenter spent much of her time in high school playing the guitar and piano; while at Princeton Day School, her "classmates threatened to cut her guitar strings if she played "Leaving on a Jet Plane" one more time." Despite her interest in music, Carpenter never considered performing publicly until, shortly after graduating from Taft, her father suggested that she perform at a local open-mike bar, a stressful experience for the shy Carpenter, who recalled, "I thought I was going to barf."
Carpenter graduated from Brown University in 1981 with a degree in American Civilization. Carpenter played some summer sets in Washington's music scene, where she met guitarist John Jennings, who would become her producer and long-time collaborator. However, she considered music a hobby and planned on getting a "real job." She briefly quit performing, but after several job interviews decided to return to music. Carpenter was persuaded by Jennings to play original material instead of covers. Within a few years, she landed a manager and recorded a demo tape that led to a deal with Columbia Records.
Early records and "country" label
Carpenter's first album, Hometown Girl, was produced by John Jennings and was released in 1987. Though songs from Hometown Girl got play on public and college radio stations, it was not until Columbia began promoting Carpenter as a "country" artist that she found a wider audience. For a long time, Carpenter was ambivalent about this pigeonholing, saying she preferred the term "singer-songwriter" or "slash rocker" (as in country/folk/rock). She told Rolling Stone in 1991, "I've never approached music from a categorization process, so to be a casualty of it is real disconcerting to me."
Some music critics argue that Carpenter's style covers a range of influences even broader than those from "country" and "folk." Time critic Richard Corliss described the songs in her album A Place in the World as "reminiscent of early Beatles or rollicking Motown," and one reviewer of Time* Sex* Love* noted the "wash of Beach Boys-style harmonies[...]backwards guitar loops" and use of a sitar on one track, all elements not commonly found on a country or folk album.
After 1989's State of the Heart, Carpenter released Shooting Straight in the Dark in 1990, which yielded her biggest single up to that point, the Grammy Award-winning "Down at the Twist and Shout". Two years later, Carpenter released the album that, to date, has been her biggest popular success, Come On Come On (1992). The album went quadruple platinum, remaining on the Country Top 100 list for more than 97 weeks, and eventually spawned seven charting singles. Come On Come On was also critically acclaimed; The New York Times's Karen Schoemer wrote that Carpenter had "risen through the country ranks without flash or bravado: no big hair, sequined gowns, teary performances[...]enriched with Ms. Carpenter's subtlety, Come On Come On grows stronger and prettier with every listen."
The songs of Come On Come On had the qualities that would come to identify her work: humorous, fast-paced country-rock songs with themes of perseverance, desire, and independence, alternating with slow, introspective ballads that speak to social or relational issues. "Passionate Kisses", a cover of fellow singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams's 1988 song, was the album's third single. Carpenter's version peaked on the U.S. Country chart at #4, and was the first of Carpenter's songs to cross over to mainstream pop and adult contemporary charts, charting at #57 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at #11 on Adult Contemporary.
The sixth single on Come On Come On, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her", was Carpenter's biggest hit off the album, charting at #2 on Billboard's Country chart and at #1 on Radio & Records's Country chart. Written by Carpenter and Don Schlitz, the fast-paced song follows a 36-year-old homemaker who leaves her husband, and was inspired by a 1970s series of Geritol commercials in which a man boasts of his wife's seemingly limitless energy and her many accomplishments, then concludes by saying "My wife...I think I'll keep her." Carpenter said, "That line has always stuck with me. It's just such a joke." The single received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year.
Continued 1990s success
In the wake of Come On Come On's success, Carpenter wrote songs for a variety of artists, including Joan Baez, who recorded "Stones in the Road" for her 1992 album Play Me Backwards after hearing Carpenter sing it live. Pop singer Cyndi Lauper co-wrote "Sally's Pigeons" with Carpenter and released it on her 1993 album Hat Full of Stars. Country singer Wynonna Judd recorded Carpenter's composition "Girls With Guitars" on her 1993 album Tell Me Why. Judd released the song as a single in 1994, in what Carpenter called "the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me as a songwriter," and it peaked on the U.S. Country chart at #10. Later, Carpenter co-wrote "Where Are You Now," which Trisha Yearwood recorded on her 2000 album Real Live Woman; the song peaked on the Country chart at #45. In the 1990s, Carpenter also dueted with Shawn Colvin, a "longtime recording pal", and sang backup in Radney Foster's "Nobody Wins" Dolly Parton (on Parton's 1993 single "Romeo") and Joan Baez on a 1995 live recording of "Diamonds & Rust" (Baez had previously covered Carpenter's song "Stones in the Road"). Carpenter also performed a number of concerts with Baez and the Indigo Girls as The Four Voices, during the mid- to late-1990s.
Carpenter followed Come On Come On with 1994's Stones in the Road, at which point USA Today wrote that "without sounding anything like a country star was previously expected to sound, [Carpenter]'s one of the genre's biggest stars." Stones in the Road sold only around two million copies, but was a crossover success with non-country audiences. Carpenter's sixth album, A Place in the World, was released in 1996 to "raves" from publications as varied as Time, People, Elle, the New York Post, and USA Today. The Boston Globe found the album more "philosophical [and] heady" than her previous work, and quoted Carpenter as saying, "[A]ll I've wanted to get out of songwriting is a sense of growth[...]I'm not shying away from any issues or subjects. I don't feel there's anything I can't address."
In 1996, Carpenter's cover of the John Lennon song "Grow Old With Me", from the Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero, became an Adult Contemporary chart hit. The song "10,000 Miles" was the signature track in the 1996 family film Fly Away Home.
In 1998, Carpenter was signed to write the music and lyrics for a planned Broadway musical adaptation of the 1953 western film Shane. Producers proposed Shane to Carpenter after Dolly Parton, and then Garth Brooks, left the project. According to Carpenter, the producers singled out "songs like 'I Am a Town and 'John Doe No. 24,' songs that are story songs, very character driven, as the key that made them want to see if this was something I was interested in. I was surprised by that, and intrigued." Carpenter left the project in 2000.
In 2001, Carpenter released her first studio album in five years, Time*Sex*Love. The New York Times wrote that Carpenter was "harder than ever to define stylistically," and described the album as a departure, "essentially a concept album about middle age." In songs such as "The Long Way Home", Carpenter espoused taking life at one's own pace, rather than indulging in rampant goal-driven materialism.
Time*Sex*Love sold fewer copies than Carpenter's earlier work, and yielded only one charting single, "Simple Life," which peaked on the U.S. Country chart at #53. Carpenter explained that, "When the record was released, I really believed there were several radio-friendly songs[...]it has been since proven to me that is not exactly the case."
In 2004, Carpenter released Between Here and Gone, a somber album that addressed events such as the events of September 11 and the death of singer-songwriter Dave Carter. The album received some of the best reviews of Carpenter's career.
Carpenter's ninth studio album, The Calling, was released in 2007 by Rounder Records' rock/pop imprint Zoë, and featured commentary about contemporary politics, including reactions to the impact of Hurricane Katrina ("Houston") and the agreement with the Dixie Chicks ("On With the Song"). In less than three months after its release, The Calling sold more than 100,000 copies in the US, without benefit of any substantial airplay on commercial country radio. This was followed by a Christmas album, Come Darkness, Come Light, which mixed original and traditional material, also on the Zoë label.
Carpenter's new studio album, The Age of Miracles has been released on April 27, 2010. It debuted at #26, her highest peak since 1996.
Despite a series of relationships, including one with John Jennings, the media made much of Carpenter's single status throughout the nineties; in a 1994 profile, Entertainment Weekly even dubbed her "a spokes-singer for the thirtysomething single woman." In 2002, Carpenter married Tim Smith, a general contractor. They currently live at "Elysium," a farm near Charlottesville, Virginia. Throughout her career, she has actively supported various charities, including CARE and Habitat for Humanity, and has conducted fundraising concerts for such causes as the elimination of landmines.
Carpenter has struggled with periods of depression since childhood. While on tour with her album The Calling in spring 2007, Carpenter experienced severe chest and back pain. She continued to perform until a bout of breathlessness took her to the ER, where she learned she had suffered a pulmonary embolism. Cancelling her summer tour to recover, Carpenter "felt that [she] had let everyone down" and fell into a depression before rediscovering "the learning curve of gratitude." Carpenter spoke about the experience on National Public Radio's This I Believe program in June 2007.
Carpenter was the author of a biweekly column in the Washington Times from December 2008 to March 2009 in which she discussed topics related to music and politics.