Don't Fence Her In : Country's Mary-Chapin Carpenter Isn't Interested in Stereotypes, Musical or Otherwise


Mary-Chapin Carpenter has been pegged so often as an oddity within country music that she is starting to get fed up.

The 33-year-old singer does have an unusual dossier for someone who has placed two successful albums on the country charts and was named by the Academy of Country Music as the best new female artist of 1989.

Carpenter spent her first 10 years in Princeton, N.J., a town with historical connections to Woodrow Wilson and Albert Einstein, but not to Hank Williams or Patsy Cline. Then she went to Japan for a few years when her father, a Life magazine executive, was assigned to the magazine's Asian edition. After that, Washington, D.C., became her home, except for the four years she spent getting an Ivy League education at Brown University in Rhode Island.

No mud-caked boots in those sojourns. No smell of horse. Not even a whiff of truck-stop diesel fuel.

But to Carpenter, who plays Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House with her four-man backing band, there is something narrow and dismissive in the attitude of interviewers who have focused primarily on the anomaly of a self-described "liberal-arts junkie" making her way on the country charts. Carpenter detects a note of condescension in that attitude, a suggestion that country must be just cowboy hats and pickup trucks.

"I am so cranky about it," she said from a Seattle tour stop. "I'm so tired of that drill. So what? Isn't it clear nowadays that you can come from anywhere? I wasn't aware you had to have a certain bio.

"It seems to come more often than not from people who don't listen to country music. They think it's teased hair and cheating and drinking and truck stops. They're stereotyping you and looking at you as a curiosity because you don't fit the mold."

Carpenter's vision of what constitutes country is more expansive. She identifies with the singer-songwriter school of country music that is more taken with detailed storytelling and acute introspection than with recycling old cliches. Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Joe Ely, Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett are among those who make her A list of country influences.

Most aspiring country performers assume that all roads must lead to Nashville, and they set their compasses accordingly. Carpenter started out without a thought of ever entering Nashville's business orbit.

Her debut album, "Hometown Girl," was a homemade collection of songs that she put together piece by piece whenever she had enough money to pay for studio time.

"I just wanted a tape that I could put in my back pocket and sell at gigs," she said. A scout for Columbia Records' Nashville branch got hold of the tape, fell for Carpenter's way with a lyric and her clear, sturdy voice (it's a fine instrument for expressing deep melancholy without getting slobbery about it), and signed her. Suddenly, this singer-songwriter with folkish leanings and some country inflections was a Nashville recording artist. And, ipso facto , a country singer.

"It was surprising to me that anybody wanted ('Hometown Girl') and, more surprising, that the Nashville division wanted it," Carpenter said. "I didn't even know what Nashville was. I didn't think there was a whole lot they could do with it. It wasn't the animal they were used to dealing with."

"Hometown Girl," released in 1987, didn't find a mass audience. But "State of the Heart," released in mid-1989, yielded four singles that made the Top 20 on the Billboard country chart: "How Do," "Never Had it So Good," "Quittin' Time" and "Something of a Dreamer." That success led to her Academy of Country Music award.

Carpenter's third album, "Shooting Straight in the Dark," has spent nearly a year on the country albums chart since its release last October. Its latest single, the infectious Cajun stomp "Down at the Twist and Shout," is also enjoying a ride up the charts.

Recently, Nanci Griffith and Rosanne Cash, both of whom share with Carpenter a singer-songwriter approach that brings folk and pop elements to country music, have left their record labels' Nashville marketing branches, aiming instead to make pop their primary market. Carpenter, who remains based in the D.C. suburbs, said she is content to stay in the country business orbit.

"Nobody (at Columbia) has ever put the squeeze on me to change anything I've ever submitted to them," she said. "I've been able to do records the way I want, and I've been lucky enough to get a response. Why would I want to give up what I've got now?"

It hasn't worked out badly for someone who got into music as a way to bide her time between college and choosing a career.

"I wasn't one of those people who knew at 10 years old that I wanted to be a musician," she said. "But I always loved music, and it always was one of the important things to me."

Carpenter began playing in Washington area clubs for summer employment during her college years. After she graduated in 1981, "it seemed logical to go home and play bars and clubs. I could make the rent that way while I decided what I wanted to do with my college degree. I just sort of fell into it."

After a few years, though, Carpenter realized she had to get out of it--not music, but the grind of playing clubs as a human jukebox. Instead, she got a day job, helping to coordinate grants for a philanthropic foundation in Washington. After hours she could work on her songs and be more choosy about the shows she played.

"The job gave me the security of not having to hustle for every (gig) that came along," Carpenter said. "And it relieved me of the debilitating lifestyle of having to stay up late in the bars and not have any health insurance."

Carpenter kept her job until the time of her second album's release.

"People think you get a major-label deal and you've got this huge bank account and you can do anything you want. In my case, that wasn't true."

As a songwriter, Carpenter has taken up diverse subjects. "Down at the Twist and Shout" is an ode to a Washington American Legion hall that would book concerts by such rootsy bands Beausoleil, the romping Cajun ensemble that backs Carpenter on the track. "This Shirt" dwells sentimentally on the personal history bound up in a faded old garment. "How Do" is a sassy expression of female sexual desire akin to some of K.T. Oslin's lusty numbers.

Still, Carpenter feels she's been pegged, a bit undeservedly, as a singer of heartbreak songs.

"People are telling me, 'You write really sad or angry songs.' I'll disagree with that, and I can cite exceptions."

But there are numerous examples that fit the description. Carpenter said she has gotten a good deal of reaction to "The Moon and St. Christopher," the introspective closing track on "Shooting Straight in the Dark." It's a self-appraisal in which she regrets fleeing close ties and hopes for "the heart and nerve" to find connection.

"That song is so personal to me, it really took a lot out of me to write it. It's hard and risky. You feel you're revealing so much about yourself and your weaknesses. Every time I play that song, the struggle of writing it is fresh to me. But the thing I've always felt about singing these songs--they make me feel brave. I feel strengthened by them."

Mary-Chapin Carpenter plays Monday at 7 and 10 p.m. at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. Both shows are sold out. Information: (714) 549-1512.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World