It's no surprise that with a voice like soft suede and a gift for storytelling that hoists listeners up and allows them to float along with her every syllable, country-folk-Americana singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has won five Grammys and sold over twelve million albums worldwide.
She’s a tremendous if underrated lyricist who should be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Joan Baez and Donovan (not Dylan, though — let’s not get carried away). She also has a gift for straddling genres — something that hasn’t always made life easy for record execs (Columbia marketed her as a pure country singer in the early days), but it has bred longevity.
Indeed, trends have come and gone, but Carpenter’s music has only gotten stronger, even if the sales haven’t been as lofty as they were in the 1990s. There’s a common notion that, as we entered the new millennium, Carpenter made a decision to worry less about radio and sales figures and more about social and political issues — things that mean something to her. That’s not quite true.
“That makes it sound more conscious than it really was,” Carpenter says. “I certainly didn’t make a decision to do that. But my songwriting took a natural route."
It was three decades ago, in 1987, that a 29-year-old Carpenter released her debut album, the already-gorgeous but barely noticed Hometown Girl. That’s her starting point in terms of getting some public attention, but the story began years earlier.
“Like most musicians, I was playing and writing for a while before that,” she says. “I don’t really like to say how I’ve changed — that’s hard to do from the inside, so I leave it to others. I just think I’ve naturally grown and improved as a songwriter.”
That debut was a solid folk record; it was followed up by State of the Heart. Carpenter's third album, Shooting Straight in the Dark, took on a far more country vibe and rose high on the Billboard country charts. But it was 1992’s Come On Come On that really caused her profile to rocket.
That album sold 2.9 million copies and made a dent in the mainstream album charts (rising to 31) as well as just the country charts. It included seven hit singles, and remains Carpenter’s best-selling album. Now, as she continues to promote 2016’s The Things That We Are Made Of album, she reflects on the things that inspire her writing: "The same things that have always inspired me — what’s going on in my life, the world around me.
“It’s impossible not to [be affected by the mood in the country]," she says. "I don’t think you can hide from it, though I certainly don’t have a bunch of politically driven songs ready to go.”
The Things That We Are Made Of is an album that Carpenter can and should feel proud of. It hit number eight on the country charts and a lofty three on the folk charts. It was produced by celebrated studio magician Dave Cobb, who did a great job of stripping any previously generated, lingering sheen and allowing Carpenter’s warm voice to work its wonders. It’s a gem, and Carpenter is less concerned with those aforementioned chart numbers and more with how her fans are reacting.
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“The only response that I really know of is when I play the songs live and people seem to be enjoying them,” she says.
That’s admirable, and it reaffirms that her priorities changed somewhere along the way, whether the decision was conscious or not. This is a supremely talented singer, musician and songwriter who doesn’t want to short-change her fans, or indeed herself, for the sake of a little extra radio play. Her recent work, arguably as a result, is exquisite, and we’ll get to hear a bunch of it, alongside old favorites, when she performs for two nights at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park this weekend.
“I’ve been playing [in Colorado] for many years, at Telluride and then at some of the best venues in the world, like Red Rocks,” Carpenter says. “One of the guys in my band is from Boulder. We love it there. I don’t know why we’re playing the Stanley — I had nothing to do with booking it. I played there last year, and it’s a very intimate room and a cool place to play."
Mary Chapin Carpenter plays at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 10, and Saturday, November 11, at the Stanley Hotel, 333 Wonderview Avenue, Estes Park, 970-577-4000, $85, room packages available.