Mary Chapin Carpenter (born February 21, 1958) is an American singer-songwriter. Carpenter spent several years singing in Washington, D.C. clubs before signing in the late 1980s with Columbia Records, who marketed her as a country singer. Carpenter's first album, 1987's Hometown Girl, did not produce any singles, although 1989's State of the Heart and 1990's Shooting Straight in the Dark each produced four Top 20 hits on the Billboard country singles charts.
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. In 2007, she released The Calling. She followed that with The Age of Miracles (2010), Ashes and Roses (2012) and the orchestral album, Songs From the Movie (2014).
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. She has sold more than 12 million records worldwide. On October 7, 2012, Mary Chapin Carpenter was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Carpenter has performed on television shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and Austin City Limits and on radio shows such as The Diane Rehm Show. She also 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 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-mic bar, a stressful experience for the shy Carpenter, who recalled, "I thought I was going to barf." Carpenter also hosted an open-mic night at a bar in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC for a number of years.
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.
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 No. 4, and was the first of Carpenter's songs to cross over to mainstream pop and adult contemporary charts, charting at No. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at No. 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 No. 2 on Billboard's Country chart and at No. 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.
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. She also wrote Tony Rice's song "John Wilkes Booth" for his 1992 album "Native American". 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 No. 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 No. 45. In the 1990s, Carpenter also duetted with Shawn Colvin, a "longtime recording pal" (the two frequently appeared on one-another's albums), 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". 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, "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. Also in 1994, Carpenter contributed the song "Willie Short" to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country produced by the Red Hot Organization. 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 No. 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.
In late 2011, Carpenter announced via Facebook and Twitter that she was hard at work on a follow-up album to The Age of Miracles. The beginning recording sessions were recorded at AIR Studios in London, England.
On February 14, 2012, Carpenter announced via her management on her official Facebook page, that her new album, Ashes and Roses, would be released on June 12, 2012.
In October 2013, Carpenter's management announced that she would release her debut orchestral recording with Songs from the Movie on January 14, 2014. On Jan 24th she performed the album songs at the Celtic Connections Festival in the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Despite a series of relationships, including one with John Jennings, the media made much of Carpenter's single status throughout the 90s; in a 1994 profile, Entertainment Weekly even dubbed her "a spokes-singer for the thirtysomething single woman".
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.