Mary Chapin Carpenter

TrackAlbum
We Traveled So FarThe Age Of Miracles
LivingstonThe Things That We Are Made Of
Down At The Twist And ShoutShooting Straight In The Dark
This Is LoveStones In The Road
Slave To The Beautytime*sex*love*
Come On Come OnCome On Come On
On With The SongThe Calling
Grand Central StationBetween Here And Gone
Sudden Gift Of FateA Place In The World
Between The Dirt And The StarsThe Dirt And The Stars

Mary Chapin Carpenter photo 1

 

 

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Mary Chapin Carpenter playlist

 

 

Contributor: Carl Parker

One of the most surprising omissions for me, among artists fêted in the Toppermost Music Bank, was the American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter.

It’s surprising on two counts; firstly, she enjoyed a platinum selling level of success with a couple of her albums back in the 1990s and secondly, and far more importantly, she is such a great songwriter. As a lyricist I believe she ranks up among the very best songwriters of the late 20th and early 21st century.

I hope I can convince those who don’t know her music of the truth of this and, among those who are familiar with her, I hope it can provoke a debate as why some of your favourite songs aren’t included. Because this is a tough job, distilling ten songs from a discography that is spread over 16 studio albums (albeit two of those albums are reworking of old songs and one is a Christmas album). Strangely it was only last year that she got round to releasing a live album, though there has been a live DVD.

She has a deft touch with lyrics, conjuring original imagery that never jars nor seems out of place. She possesses a rich and varied palette: writing of love in its various manifestations, she illustrates American life, she sketches the lives of individuals, she paints the political, she looks to the past and to the future and sometimes just writes for the fun of it.

Right from her early days she demonstrated an ability to identify human frailty and turning her observations into an insightful lyric. Hometown Girl, the title track from her first album, contains the lines:

Now I knew girls when I was sixteen
Could make a smart boy stutter, turn a nice boy mean
And the boys made the girls into homecoming queens
Married each other instead of their dreams

From her second album State Of The Heart, she wrote a song about an ostensibly banal subject. With the title This Shirt, she proves thumbnail sketches of scenes from life, taking us on a journey from schooldays, through relationships, to the present day where it has become something to wear while doing housework.

For her song Outside Looking In (not the Animals’ song), the image in the line I heard the sound a heart must make when a memory’s caving in makes it one of my all-time favourite lyrics. In Chasing What’s Already Gone she wrote:

And it seems to happen nearly overnight
Life shows you who you’ve become
And there’s no more mystery in the fading light
You’re just chasing what’s already gone

Or from John Doe No. 24 (a song imagining the interior life of a deaf, blind and mute man whose death she had read about):

The years kept passing as they passed me around, from one state ward to another
Like I was an orphan shoe from the lost and found, always missing the other

That’s a song I’d loved to have included, but I am limited to ten. However, the combination of Mary Chapin’s picked guitar and her voice, with Branford Marsalis’s soprano sax gently intertwining itself in, around and through the song is quite magical.

She eschews the use of cliché unless it is to employ it for effect, as in Sometimes Just The Sky where she wrote:

To wear my heart down on my sleeve
Just like a battle scar

The first time I heard Mary Chapin was on a programme on the sadly no longer existent Greater London Radio (great job by the BBC by the way; take an excellent service, subject it to a review and then screw it up by replacing it with something inferior), hosted by journalist and author David Hepworth. This was in the early 90s.

David occasionally interviewed guests and got them to select various records, such as the first one they ever bought, a song they wish they had written and a number of other categories. When he had the late Nanci Griffith on, under the ‘A Song That Makes You Laugh’ category, Nanci selected MCC’s Never Had It So Good. Nanci said she liked the line about you’re out of my life with a wave of her hand

I wish I had instantly thought “Wow, that’s brilliant”, but it pretty much passed me by. My wife on the other hand thought it was great and went out and bought the cassette of Mary Chapin’s album Shooting Straight In The Dark to play as she drove to and from work. In no time she was telling me what a fantastic album it was and I had to agree and have been sold on her music ever since.

My opening song choice for this selection was decided for me because of one of the loveliest, most memorable and entrancing gig openings I have ever experienced.

Mary Chapin hadn’t toured the UK between 2001 and 2010. She had made an appearance at Celtic Connections in 2007, but there was no tour. Part of the reason was serious illness in the form of a pulmonary embolism, but even accounting for that, as we had seen her half a dozen times between 1993 and 2001, this hiatus seemed overlong. Anyway we saw her perform at The Barbican in London.²

The house lights went down, the chatter died away to nothing but a murmur. The stage was in total darkness. Then we heard chords being strummed on an acoustic guitar. A spotlight illuminated Mary Chapin, centre stage. Then an electric guitar joins her. Another spotlight then picked out the late John Jennings, her long-time guitarist and producer. They both make a quarter turn to face each other and gently bow, then turn back to face the audience. A piano enters the mix. Jon Carroll too is picked out by a spotlight. Mary Chapin and John both turn and bow towards Jon who simultaneously nods back. And so on with the rest of the band. It was so simple, yet utterly magical and totally beguiling.

The only opening I can recall that matched it for impact came from The Sensational Alex Harvey Band many, many years before and the contrast couldn’t have been greater both as a performance spectacle and coming from the opposite end of the sonic spectrum. Yet the understatement of Mary Chapin’s entrance was so much more impressive than the bombast of SAHB.

The song Mary Chapin played was (appropriately) We Traveled So Far.

… you search for the signs
Of kindness, of love, of someone
To walk with in rain or in sun
Until then, life’s hardly begun

It was a perfect introduction for her return to the London stage and also serves as a perfect introduction here.

 

Ben Bullington was a name I’d never heard of until Darrell Scott released the album 10 back in 2015, which consisted of ten of Bullington’s songs.

Bullington was a doctor who also wrote and performed songs. He devoted himself to his primary job and consequently his music wasn’t widely known. Then after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis he gave up medical practice and devoted the last period of his life to his music.

Mary Chapin was also a friend and my next pick, Livingston, is another travelling song, telling as it does of her trip to the town of Livingston, Wyoming to see Ben before he died.

The lines that really resonate are:

I came to say goodbye and to hug you
But I wasn’t brave enough to say that
So I said see you soon and I love you
And I think you understood me from way back
From the very first time we ever sang our songs
Late one night in Livingston

It’s a situation I completely empathise with and I’m sure many others can too. Rather than confronting the brutal reality and saying something truthful that acknowledges the end is approaching, we come out with words that comfort us more than the person whose mortality is staring them in the face.

The tune is beautiful and even though I have heard this song dozens of times now, it still profoundly moves me every time I hear it.

Livingston comes from her 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of, which was a massive return to form for Mary Chapin. While she had not produced a bad album, between Stones In The Road, released in 1994, and The Things… there wasn’t an album that I felt I could wholeheartedly, unreservedly recommend. Every one of them has some great songs (as this list demonstrates) but there just wasn’t that spark throughout that made the records an essential buy for the uncommitted listener.

Part of the reason may have been spending too much time in the studio. For The Things… she had engaged Dave Cobb as producer. In an interview I read after its release she said Dave had made decisions that a particular take was the one needed and no more time should be spent trying for a perfect take.³ That attitude helped produce an album packed with great songs that I still play six years after its release.

 

Just in case I am giving the impression that Mary Chapin is all about introspection, I’ll change to one of her uptempo numbers.

From her third album Shooting Straight In The Dark, I have selected Down At The Twist And Shout. It confirms that Mary Chapin can rock out. One of her most popular songs is a cover of Lucinda Williams’s Passionate Kisses, which appeared on the Come On Come On album. I can also recall her playing an incendiary version of Bruce Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down⁴ when she toured here in the autumn of 1999. While it isn’t on album there is a very good audio version of the song on YouTube.

This is a song simply about going out and having a good time. There’s a really strong Cajun influence with Zydeco band Beausoleil playing with her on the album. Beausoleil also join her and the band in this clip.

 

Love songs come in three basic flavours – unrequited, found and lost. I’d suggest the majority are about lost love. Possibly because pain and anguish are easier to write about than simply expressing the happiness of being involved in a relationship. With unrequited and lost love songs there may also be the (most likely forlorn) hope that the subject might also hear the song and come to their senses and reciprocate love for the singer.

This Is Love, the closing song from Mary Chapin’s second biggest selling album Stones In The Road (although to be strictly accurate it ends with a piano coda that reprises the album’s opening track Why Walk When You Can Fly), has a subtlety in that it looks back to a relationship, but rather than bewail what’s lost it celebrates the strength of a love that still exists without bitterness.

I could quote the whole song, but you should just listen to it

Time’s been here to fix what’s broken with its power
And the love that smashed us both to bits spent its last few hours
Calling out your name and I thought, this is the kind of pain from which we don’t recover
But I’m standing here now with my heart held out to you
You would have thought a miracle was all that got us through
Well baby, all I know, all I know is I’m still standing

Its presence in this list is again largely down to hearing it live. Mary Chapin and her band played a short acoustic tour of the UK supporting the album.⁵ While it is the last song on Stones In The Road she opened the set with it. I was familiar with the album yet hadn’t recognised the magnificence of this song. Hearing it live for the first time absolutely bowled me over. The opening lines just pull you in and then you marvel at the lightness of touch in describing a past affair where love continues and there is no bitterness but she asks to be remembered at quiet times redolent of their time together which help conjure the beauty of the song.

 

Slave To The Beauty comes from the album time*sex*love*. The album title comes from something John Jennings had said, “Time is the great gift, sex is the great equaliser, love is the great mystery”. Though those themes are very much present on this album they are covered in many of Mary Chapin’s songs.

This song choice explores the mystery of love. The tension between physical attraction to someone and the knowledge that the object of desire isn’t anyone who can be relied upon.

Don’t want to fear the way I fear you’ll hurt me because you can
I never believed I’d crave that kind of man

Further on in the song comes the line:

Don’t want to love the way I love you …

There’s a real sense of confusion for you. A feeling of helplessness in the face of the inevitable.

The song itself is in four parts. It opens with an insistent bass pulse, while Mary Chapin sings along to a strummed guitar with rhythm guitar behind her with the percussion mixed down low. The drums come in louder and electric guitar and piano are brought forward in the mix for the second section, organ comes in as things then get even rockier with a background, then in the final part strings come in after she sings the Don’t want to love the way I love you line and the song really soars.⁶

 

When I saw the title Come On Come On I expected the song to be an out and out rocker (I suppose that’s due to Eddie Cochran) but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s a beautiful meditation on years gone by and indeed years before Mary Chapin was born (and she manages to get away with a moon/June lyric) when she sings:

It’s a photograph taken in Paris, at the end of the honeymoon
In 1948, late in the month of June
Your parents smile for the camera in sienna shades of light
Now you’re older than they were then that summer night

It’s a love song, evoking memories of her own past as well as her parents’ life. In terms of the performance of the song itself, it may be an obvious thing to do, but when she gets to the line in the chorus you just have to whisper and she lowers her voice to a whisper, it is something I love every time I hear it. Mary Chapin observes of love:

It’s a need you never get used to, so fierce and so confused
It’s a loss you never get over the first time you lose

Who can fail to identify with those lines?

Unusually for one of Mary Chapin’s albums, Come On Come On contains not one but two covers. The first is Dire Straits’ The Bug which, to be honest, I can take or leave. I guess it is fun to perform, but it doesn’t do anything for me. The second is Lucinda Williams’ Passionate Kisses. This song on the other hand is absolutely brilliant in two ways – the song itself and Mary Chapin’s performance of it. Years later it still remains as part of her live shows.⁷

 

On With The Song was written in support of the (as they were at that time, Dixie) Chicks in the wake of their vilification after their comments about George Bush making them ashamed of coming from Texas. The targets MCC takes aim at seemed to represent extremism at that time, but such has been the change in the political climate since then that today the sentiments the haters expressed are comparatively mild.

The Chicks aren’t explicitly referenced but instead Mary Chapin wrote

This is for the ones that I see above me
Three little stars in a great big sky
Light for the world and hope for the weary
They try

This is probably her angriest song and to reflect that mood, as you’d expect, it rocks with relentless rhythm and noisy guitars.

 

The irrational, over the top, reaction that inspired On With The Song was as a result of the invasion of Iraq that of course was rooted in the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th 2001.

Mary Chapin’s response to that was to look at the aftermath of that atrocity from the perspective of one of the workers toiling to clear the site – All this holy dust upon my face and shirt. The worker sees himself as an honest working man, but for him there is one special aspect to his work, guiding the ghosts of the dead back to Grand Central Station.

I ain’t no hero, mister, just a working man
And all these voices keep on asking me to take them
To Grand Central Station

Who else would think of tackling such a difficult topic from that viewpoint? It’s easier to write about the subject by voicing anger, or a desire for revenge, to express hatred of the perpetrators, pity for the victims or share the grief for their families. But to approach it from the viewpoint of a site worker who helps guide spirits home is a unique perspective.

It is also a very beautiful song.

 

A Place In The World was the follow up to Stones In the Road. While overall not as strong a collection as its predecessor it still contained its own share of gems.

My choice from that album is Sudden Gift Of Fate. This is a love song that falls within the found love category. Mary Chapin isn’t going to write a simple “Baby, I love you” declaration. Of how she feels. Instead, it is almost a meditation on the wondrous, beautiful thing that has come into her life. It’s a love song that doesn’t mention the word love once.

Some people have never been the lonely kind
Never called a friend in the middle of the night
Just to hear a voice say it’s okay…
… You took a long night and turned it into day

The song is a delicate construction. Gently picked guitar with a very gentle percussive beat (no cymbals or hi-hat) overlaid with an understated, laidback string accompaniment.

The state of being alone, but not just alone but lonely, is transformed. Towards the end when she sings you can celebrate it is delivered with restraint, almost as if too much exuberance could bring the relationship to an end.

 

I noted that I thought The Things That We Are Made Of was Mary Chapin’s best album for many years. It was followed by Sometimes Just The Sky which was a reworking of songs from her past, plus one new song. It was an enjoyable collection, notable for the introduction of Ethan Johns as producer and being recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England.

Mary Chapin returned to Real World and engaged Ethan Johns again as producer for her most recent album, The Dirt And The Stars, released in 2020.

What a triumph! How many artists, so deep in their careers, produce their very best work? While I lauded the album to anyone who would listen, it was suggested that I was overstating the case. In time I would gain perspective and not think so highly of it. Some 18 months after its release I still think this is her finest work. It is absolutely replete with great songs (though there is also the mystery of why the splendid single Our Man Walter Cronkite wasn’t included): among them is a tribute to John Jennings titled Old D-35 (after his Martin guitar); American Stooge which is an anti Trump song, though, typically for Mary Chapin, she doesn’t go for the obvious target but instead eviscerates his enablers, specifically here Senator Lindsey Graham; the profoundly lovely All Broken Hearts Break Differently and much more. However, I’m going for the absolutely fantastic song that gives the album its title.

Between The Dirt And The Stars opens with a strummed guitar, joined by organ, bass and drums before Mary Chapin sings of a memory from long, long ago:

Try to conjure up a night
Of jessamine upon the air
I’m seventeen and in a car
Ready to ride anywhere

What a wonderfully lyrical and evocative opening.

But the song goes on to ask the listener to consider all of the things that have shaped our lives

Everything that made you whole
Everything that broke your heart

It’s a song that reflects upon how our lives are shaped by our experiences.

If we’re lucky ghosts and prayers
Are company, not enemies

It’s a song I have to ration myself on because I love it so much. I don’t want it to become overfamiliar. I never want to become so jaded with it that, rather than profoundly touching my heart and soul, it just becomes musical wallpaper to me.

Special mention has to be made of Duke Levine, Mary Chapin’s (other) long-time guitarist. I’m not sure now when Duke joined her band, but there were magnificent nights when we had both Duke and John playing together.

The second half of the song is dominated by Duke’s guitar solo, which doesn’t go on long enough as far as I’m concerned, but it is absolutely wonderful.

I think this is Mary Chapin’s finest song. Stop reading and click the link and listen to it.

 

There we have it. My Top Ten from Mary Chapin Carpenter’s catalogue. I think she’s one of the very best songwriters around, but I don’t think she gets the recognition she deserves. Why that should be I don’t know.

I hope this song selection goes some way to convincing you that what I say is true.

 

Mary Chapin Carpenter photo 3

 

¹ Thanks to David Hepworth for confirming this information.

² A note here on Mary’s generosity of spirit. I have seen headliners join the support act during their set, I have seen headliners bring the support act back to join in a song but this is the only gig where the support, in this instance the wonderful Tift Merritt, has been brought back during the encore and given the opportunity to play one their own songs. Tift performed Another Country.

³ Elton John made a similar point when his Songs From The West Coast album was acclaimed as his best for a very long time. He stated he has been very taken with Ryan Adams’s album Heartbreaker, which had been recorded in a couple of weeks. Then he remembered he used to make records that way.

Here’s a YouTube link to a performance of My Love Will Not Let You Down

We were very lucky to get tickets. Her Majesty’s Theatre, 4th December 1994. I only found out about the gig late and phoned the venue box office. I was told there were two tickets left, back row of the circle, but they weren’t together. That didn’t matter and I bought them. The gig was recorded by the BBC and the best part of an hour was broadcast. It is available on YouTube.

The sleeve credits state there is a French Horn playing, but I’m damned if I can hear it. Maybe my audio gear isn’t up to scratch. Or perhaps it’s my ears.

The first time we saw MCC, Lucinda was the support, and joined her on stage for the performance of Passionate Kisses. Thanks to this introduction we have been fans of Lucinda’s ever since.

There is probably an essay to be written somewhere on MCC’s use of stars and other cosmic imagery as motifs in her songs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Chapin Carpenter official website

Mary Chapin Carpenter discography

Mary Chapin Carpenter awards

Mary Chapin Carpenter youtube channel

The Mary Chapin Carpenter Facebook Group

John Jennings (1953–2015)

Mary Chapin Carpenter biography (AllMusic)

Carl Parker originated in Chester but has lived in north London since 1981. He’s unusual in these times in not subscribing to any social media, but contributes to sites like The Afterword and used to contribute to No Depression before it turned into an elitist institution. He’s recently retired and enjoys a relaxed life, where listening to new music is a recurring pleasure.

TopperPost #1,007

5 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Jan 31, 2022

    Despite over 1000 posts, so far, yes there are still gaps. And you have filled this one admirably. And inspired me to fill some of my own …

  2. Andrew Shields
    Feb 2, 2022

    Great Toppermost on a very fine artist. My own ten would be quite different, however. Would have to have ‘He Thinks He”ll Keep Her’ – for the steel in the lyric – ‘Quittin’ Time’ in the live version from the Ryman and ”The Place Where Time Stands Still’ which may be her most beautiful song. And ‘John Doe’ would also have to be in my actual top ten.

    • Carl Parker
      Feb 2, 2022

      That live version of “Quittin’ Time” is a lovely reworking.
      “Where Time Stands Still” loses out through coming just before “This Is Love” on the album. I wanted to get songs from as many albums as possible, so didn’t want two from the same album.

  3. Colin Duncan
    Feb 14, 2022

    Thanks Carl. It’s a well written article and I know most of the tracks. It was Lucinda that took me into Mary Chapin Carpenter and I saw Mary in concert in the nineties. I regularly play ‘Come On, Come On’ and ‘Stones In The Road’ but I’m inspired to check out the music of hers I don’t know. Thanks Carl.

  4. Glenn Merrick
    Apr 2, 2022

    MCC is my all-time favorite recording artist. Many of my song selections would differ, but that is just part of the tribute to the depth of her writing and artistry. She is among the very best examples of musicians whose popularity suffers because one genre can’t contain her. She outgrew the country label that brought her to fame long ago. At her concerts it is always her roots in folk and rock that really shine through! The Things We Are Made Of is my favorite album and I hope she does another one with David Cobb. One of the blessings of her Songs from Home series during the first year of COVID was getting to see up close what a fantastic guitar player she is. Looking forward to seeing her in Minneapolis this summer!

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