It’s a safe bet that there was very little overlap between the audience for Mary Chapin Carpenter ’s concert Saturday night (Aug. 4) at the AmSouth Amphitheatre in Nashville and the audience for Brooks & Dunn ’s Neon Circus and Wild West Show at the same venue earlier this summer.
Though she was the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year in 1992 and 1993, Carpenter and country music have been a loose fit for each other. She earned her honors on the strength of uptempo hits such as “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “I Feel Lucky” and “Passionate Kisses,” but just as often she trades in more personal, introspective fare. Among her earliest successes was the break-up tune “Quittin’ Time,” and her new album, Time*Sex*Love*, has its share of quiet moments.
With country music fighting its way out of creative doldrums, Carpenter provides a fresh reminder that diversity has worked before. Her Nashville show and her summer tour suggest that she has courage and confidence for the long haul. An accomplished songwriter herself, she has chosen no less talents than Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle to share the bill with her.
Just three years ago, Colvin won two Grammys — record of the year and song of the year — for “Sunny Came Home.” So it was a little surprising to see her stroll out first, before the sun was down, to perform 12 songs with acoustic guitar. Colvin is an outstanding guitarist and vocalist and a great interpreter of songs. Her modest presentation lasted nearly an hour and included covers of Earle’s “Someday” (a song she recorded for an album, Cover Girl), the Beatles’ “I’ll Be Back” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York.”
Colvin dipped into her recent album, Whole New You, for songs such as “Anywhere You Go,” “Matter of Minutes” and “Nothing Like You,” but she also reached back to her earliest for “Steady On” and “Shotgun Down the Avalanche.” Her small daughter, Caledonia, around 3-years-old now, joined her for an interlude –- which prompted Earle, in his later set, to introduce two hulking sons of his own. Ultimately, Colvin’s set was so short on formality that it felt like a surprise visit from an old friend, welcome but unexpected.
After a stint as a bluegrass proponent, Earle is out this summer reminding people that he can rock. Lately, he looks like a hybrid of Hemingway and a Hells’ Angel with his glasses, beard, cutoff sleeves and tattoos. The current edition of his band, The Dukes, includes longtime bassist Kelly Looney, guitarist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel and drummer Will Rigby. “There’s no call for alarm,” Earle said after a blazing “Fearless Heart.” “We’re just your token testosterone for the night.”
Earle drew the greatest part of his set from his fine 2000 release, Transcendental Blues, including the title track, “Everyone’s in Love With You,” “Another Town” (his set opener), “Lonelier Than This” “I Can Wait,” “Steve’s Last Ramble” and “The Galway Girl” (featuring his manager, Dan Gillis, on pennywhistle). Though he has stumped incessantly against the death penalty and landmines in recent years, Earle brought up neither in his set.
Like Bob Dylan, Earle never bothered with voice lessons. He’s content to bark out his songs in a mannered rasp, but his melodies are so friendly and appealing that it never matters. With his band, he’s eager to give the guitars a prominent role; between “Everyone’s in Love With You” and “Transcendental Blues,” the group stirred up enough feedback and distortion to make Neil Young proud. “Hurtin’ Me Hurtin You,” from the 1996 album, I Feel Alright, worked well as a funky, Stax-like number.
As is her custom, Carpenter brought the sharpest of bands with her, too. Longtime collaborator John Jennings has moved from guitar to bass, making way for guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry. Fairport Convention alum Dave Mattacks played drums, and another Carpenter mainstay, Jon Carroll, played keyboards. The new lineup offered great flexibility. In the same way that she once rearranged “Quittin’ Time” for live performance, Carpenter and her talented cohorts overhauled “The Hard Way,” turning the anthemic fist-pumper into a meditation, with guitar work from Levine and Barry recalling the stylings of Bill Frisell.
Selections from Time*Sex*Love* made up the better part of Carpenter’s set. At ease on stage, she paused often to chat with her audience. “It begins in here and it ends in here,” she said at one point, putting her hand over her heart, “and it doesn’t matter how many yoga classes or potions I buy.”
After “I Feel Lucky,” she explained that John Cusack and George Clooney are the top vote-getters in a poll to determine whom she should namecheck in the song, in place of Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam . She saved “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” for the first encore, and Carpenter cast a spell over the shed with “Late for Your Life,” a song from the new album, about foolishly postponing change.
And in a nod to what got her there, Carpenter finished the night with a raucous “Down at the Twist and Shout,” making it clear she still has a home in country music.