Mary-Chapin Carpenter remembers standing onstage at the 1990 Country Music Association Awards, ready to launch into “You Don’t Know Me” — an irreverent song about the rigors of being an opening act — and thinking: “Oh, God, this is a disaster. I should never have agreed to do this.” But she pulled off an engaging, sassy performance and brought the audience to its feet. Now, sitting in a dark-paneled room in a sleek pub in Alexandria, Virginia, the thirty-three-year-old Carpenter looks nothing like the country star that she is — no big hair, no sequined denim jacket. Instead, she resembles a college student; she’s wearing a black turtleneck, faded jeans, tortoise-shell glasses and a men’s herringbone-tweed coat with the sleeves rolled up. “I’ve never approached music from a categorization process,” she says, “so to be a casualty of it is real disconcerting to me.”
While Carpenter may like to call herself a casualty, she’s not exactly hurting. Signed out of Columbia’s Nashville division, she’s taken the country-music world by storm in little over three years and made some pretty significant inroads into the alternative-music scene as well. She’s been nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocalist; the Academy of Country Music named her Best New Female Vocalist for 1989; her current (and third) LP, Shooting Straight in the Dark, is a staple on the country charts; and she’s no slouch when it comes to airplay on college radio. But that’s somehow not enough. Carpenter says she feels trapped by her image as a “hip” country singer. Aligning herself with artists like Rosanne Cash and Lyle Lovett, who have also had trouble crossing over, she clearly wants broader pop success.
Carpenter prefers the term singer-songwriter or “slash” rocker, as in country/folk/rock. And it’s true that her songs — almost always confessional, whether they’re mournful, contemplative or angry — rely on country idioms even as they bend the genre. Quite often the difference between her and, say, Emmylou Harris is in the treatment of her material. Whereas Harris tugs at heartstrings with sometimes syrupy arrangements and honeyed tones, Carpenter doesn’t succumb to the maudlin or the sweet. Instead, her voice is a strong, straight-ahead instrument that sounds as though it’s used to talking out problems late into the night. In fact, Carpenter admits that much of the material on her last two albums is drawn from one particular relationship. “The truth is that the first song that got on the radio that I drew from this relationship is a song called ‘Never Had It So Good,’ ” she says. “I never imagined that it would get on the radio. I never meant to embarrass anybody…. Songwriting is a personal endeavor; self-therapy, if you will.”
Carpenter’s not made from typical country & western material. She was born in Princeton, New Jersey, not West Virginia. And daddy wasn’t exactly a coal miner — he was a publishing executive at Life magazine. Carpenter says she had a pretty typical suburban upbringing, pilfering her older sisters’ Mamas and Papas, Beatles and Judy Collins albums and “banging around” on the piano. The only country influence she’ll own up to is her mother’s Woody Guthrie records. After graduating from high school, Carpenter spent an inordinate amount of time sitting in her bedroom, strumming on her guitar. But she never considered performing until her father pressed her into it. “He said, ‘There’s a bar down the street, they have open-mike sessions, why don’t you go out and play at one of those things?’ ” says Carpenter. “That was the first time it occurred to me, frankly.” She remembers that she wanted to throw up and that the audience was polite — she can’t for the life of her remember what she played.
Carpenter went on to attend Brown University, where she got a degree in American Civilization and treated music as a hobby, playing gigs in the summers to make extra money. “After I graduated from college,” she says, “I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to do something with this degree and get a real job.’ ” Instead, she played in bars until the late nights, the cover tunes and, especially, the drinking became too much. It takes the self-described steady and reserved Carpenter a while to open up about her alcoholism. “I had a big problem,” she says, her control breaking down for a moment. “It was awful. I had to make a lifestyle change in a drastic way. It’s still so painful to me to think about how I was.”
So she put on nice dresses and began interviewing for a straight job, thinking maybe the nine-to-five life was the answer. As soon as someone actually offered her a position, though, she panicked. “I remember making a decision to go back into music but change some things,” she says. She quit drinking, played only in bars that let her do original material, hooked up with a manager and recorded a demo tape that attracted interest at CBS. She hasn’t looked back since.
Even though she’s been lauded by critics, won awards, kicked a drinking problem and, for the first time in a while, gotten involved in a serious relationship, Carpenter admits there’s a deep sadness that runs through her. Those blues form a backbone to most of her material — imparting a gravity that resonates long after the song is over. Carpenter looks down at the table and explains quietly, “There’s a melancholy, and sometimes it grabs you and won’t let go, and other times it’s lightened itself and you can go on, but it’s like a trail that you leave behind you.”