Mary Chapin Carpenter

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Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter.jpg
Carpenter in 2010
Background information
Born (1958-02-21) February 21, 1958 (age 63)
Princeton, New Jersey, U.S.
  • Vocals
  • acoustic guitar
  • electric guitar
Years active1987–present
Associated acts John Jennings

Mary Chapin Carpenter (born February 21, 1958) is an American rock, folk, and country music singer-songwriter. [1] [2] 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 charting 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 US 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), the orchestral album, Songs From the Movie (2014) and Sometimes Just the Sky (2018).

Carpenter has won five Grammy Awards and is the only artist to have won four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, which she received from 1992 to 1995. [3] She has sold more than 12 million records worldwide. [4] On October 7, 2012, 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 Wolf Trap.


Early life

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. [5] She attended Princeton Day School, a private coeducational prep school, [6] before graduating from The Taft School in 1976. [7]

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. [8] When Carpenter was 16 her parents divorced, an event that affected Carpenter and that she wrote about in her song "House of Cards". [5] 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." [9] 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." [10] Carpenter also hosted an open-mic night at a bar in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC for a number of years. [11]

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". [8] 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. [10] Within a few years, she landed a manager and recorded a demo tape that led to a deal with Columbia Records. [8]

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. [12] 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". [8]

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", [13] 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, [14] 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, [3] 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." [15]

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. [16] "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. [17]

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. [17] 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." [18] 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. She also wrote Tony Rice's song "John Wilkes Booth" for his 1988 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", [3] and it peaked on the U.S. Country chart at No. 10. [19]

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 each other's albums), and sang backup in Radney Foster's "Nobody Wins", [20] Dolly Parton (on Parton's 1993 singles "Romeo" & "More Where That Came From"), 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." [5] Stones in the Road sold only around two million copies, but yielded three charting singles with "Shut Up and Kiss Me" reaching number one on the Billboard Country Charts and was a crossover success with non-country audiences. [20] 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 . [20] 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." [20]

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 .[ citation needed ]

In 1998, Carpenter was signed to write the music and lyrics for a planned Broadway musical adaptation of the 1953 western film Shane . [21] 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." [22] Carpenter left the project in 2000.[ citation needed ]

2000s and beyond work

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". [23] 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, [23] and yielded only one charting single, "Simple Life", which peaked on the U.S. Country chart at No. 53. [17] 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." [14]

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. [4] [24] 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. [25]

Carpenter's tenth studio album, The Age of Miracles was released on April 27, 2010. [26] It debuted at No. 28, her highest peak since 1996.

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 January 24 she performed the album songs at the Celtic Connections Festival in the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

In early 2018, Carpenter released Sometimes Just the Sky. With one new cut on the album, the rest is a re-recording of one song from each of her twelve studio albums, all with a new band and some different arrangements. Carpenter says the title track is inspired from an interview with Patti Smith in which Smith said – "You don't have to look far or wide, and it doesn't have to be complicated or expensive or madness to find things to soothe you in life, or to be happy about. Sometimes just the sky makes everything fall into perspective." [27]

Released in March 2018, Joan Baez's studio album Whistle Down the Wind includes Carpenter's song "The Things That We Are Made Of".

In August 2020, Carpenter released The Dirt and the Stars , containing 11 songs written at her farmhouse in Virginia and recorded live at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios near Bath, England. [28]

Personal life

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". [29]

In 2002 Carpenter married contractor Tim Smith. They divorced in 2010. [30] [31]

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. [32] 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". [33] 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. [34]

Carpenter lives in Afton, Virginia. [35]


Academy of Country Music

Americana Music Honors & Awards

Country Music Association

Grammy Awards

Honorary Degree


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<i>Play Me Backwards</i> 1992 studio album by Joan Baez

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He Thinks Hell Keep Her 1993 single by Mary-Chapin Carpenter

"He Thinks He'll Keep Her" is a song co-written and recorded by American country music artist Mary Chapin Carpenter. It was released in December 1993 as the sixth single from the album Come On Come On. The song peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. It was written by Carpenter and Don Schlitz.

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<i>Come On Come On</i> 1992 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Come On Come On is the fourth album by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Seven of its tracks became Billboard Hot Country Singles hits in 1992, 1993, and 1994. They were, chronologically, "I Feel Lucky" at #4, "Not Too Much to Ask" at #15, "Passionate Kisses" at #4, "The Hard Way" at #11, "The Bug" at #16, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" at #2, and "I Take My Chances" also at #2. The album topped out at #6 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.

<i>Stones in the Road</i> 1994 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Stones in the Road is the fifth album by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and her first and only #1 Country Album on the Billboard charts. The album also contains her first and only #1 Hot Country Singles hit, "Shut Up and Kiss Me." Other charting singles were "Tender When I Want to Be" at #6, "House of Cards" at #21, and "Why Walk When You Can Fly?" at #45. The nostalgically themed title track was first recorded by folk singer Joan Baez for her 1992 studio album Play Me Backwards, to whom Carpenter first pitched the song during a joint concert appearance before she recorded it herself. It was also featured in the 1995 film Bye Bye Love.

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<i>Between Here and Gone</i> 2004 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Between Here and Gone is the eighth studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter. It was released April 27, 2004. The album reached number five on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart, although the album itself produced no chart singles. The title track was written by Carpenter upon hearing of the death of singer-songwriter Dave Carter.

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Mary Chapin Carpenter discography

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<i>Party Doll and Other Favorites</i> 1999 compilation album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Party Doll and Other Favorites is the first compilation album by American country music singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. It was released in 1999 on the Columbia Records label and comprises a mix of her greatest hits, several album cuts, and newly recorded tracks.

<i>The Calling</i> (Mary Chapin Carpenter album) 2007 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

The Calling is the ninth studio album released from country music singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. It is the follow-up album to her 2004 album, Between Here and Gone. The Calling was released on March 6, 2007 on Zoë Records. Carpenter had previously been on Columbia Nashville, this being her first release after leaving Columbia. Like her previous album, she wrote every track on the album.

<i>The Age of Miracles</i> (album) 2010 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

The Age of Miracles is the eleventh studio album released by American music artist Mary Chapin Carpenter. The album was released on April 27, 2010 on Zoë Records and was produced by Carpenter and Matt Rollings.

<i>Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas</i> 2008 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas is a Christmas album recorded by American singer-composer Mary Chapin Carpenter. The album was released on September 30, 2008, on Zoë Records and was produced by Carpenter and John Jennings. The release was Carpenter's second album released under the Zoë record label and her first album of holiday-themed music.

Passionate Kisses 1993 single by Mary Chapin Carpenter

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Almost Home (Mary Chapin Carpenter song) 1999 single by Mary Chapin Carpenter

"Almost Home" is a song co-written and recorded by American country music singer Mary Chapin Carpenter. It was released in April 1999 as the first single from her compilation album, Party Doll and Other Favorites. It peaked at number 22 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and is her last Top 40 country hit.

<i>The Dirt and the Stars</i> 2020 studio album by Mary Chapin Carpenter

The Dirt and the Stars is the sixteenth studio album by American singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter. It was released on August 7, 2020 by Lambent Light Records.


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