Despite CMA’s Best New Artist Honors, Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s Still Surprised

Don’t call Mary-Chapin Carpenter plain ol’ Mary. It bugs the singer-songwriter when people use only the first half of her double first name.

“People never have trouble with Sue-Ellen or Betty-Lou, but they can’t seem to get Mary-Chapin,” the 32-year-old said by phone from an office near her Alexandria, Va., home.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 9, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 9, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
It was the Academy of Country Music that named Mary-Chapin Carpenter best new female artist, not the Country Music Assn. as stated in a headline in the Dec. 2 Pop Faces.

“My dad’s first name is Chapin, and part of my mother’s name is Mary, so they named me after both of them,” she said, explaining that the name wasn’t even hyphenated until 1 1/2 years ago, when people at CBS Records suggested it as a way to end nominal confusion.

“But the honest truth is it hasn’t made any difference,” she sighed. “People still call me Mary.”

But Carpenter doesn’t mind when people call her hyphenated country-pop-rock-folk music plain ol’ country.


“Not at all!” she said. “Country music has changed a lot in the last few years. It embraces a lot of things that up until recently it wouldn’t. Someone like myself can now find a niche there.”

No wonder she doesn’t mind: “Shooting Straight in the Dark,” her third album released by Columbia Records’ Nashville wing, is currently in the Top 30 on Billboard magazine’s country chart, (see review on Page 73), and the Academy of Country Music voted her the best new female artist of 1989.

But Carpenter is still a bit surprised to be a country artist. Born in Princeton, N.J., raised in Washington and schooled in American civilization at Brown University, she began her professional music career after graduating from college playing in non-country clubs and bars in the Washington area.

In the mid-'80s her demo tape caught the attention of independent Rounder Records. But before Rounder could release an album, a Columbia Nashville representative also heard the tape and signed Carpenter. That demo became her 1987 debut album, “Hometown Girl.” 1989’s “State of the Heart” followed, with two of its songs reaching the country Top 10.

Still, her music is hardly traditional country. Reviews tend to compare her to Suzanne Vega and John Hiatt, not Dolly Parton and Randy Travis. Among country stars, Rosanne Cash might be the closest musical kin.

But Carpenter, who plays the Roxy on Thursday and the Riverside Hop on Friday, is content with her lot and not chomping at the bit for a chance to break out of the country world and gain wider recognition.

“If doing what I want to do means that I remain being perceived as a country artist, then that’s just dandy with me,” she said. “I guess what I’m trying to say is I have no desire to distance myself from what I’ve done.”