Mary Chapin Carpenter says she thinks of songwriting as “excavation and exploration.” She does plenty of both in her new album, The Age of Miracles, through which she reflects on her mortality, her marriage and the state of the world. She has never been one to think small.
In the spring of 2007, the then 49-year-old singer-songwriter was hospitalized for a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. She spent the rest of that year recuperating and crafting the songs that now constitute The Age of Miracles. By the oddest of circumstance, the album was released three years to the day after Carpenter was discharged from the hospital.
Speaking to CMT.com by phone, she explains that even though her songs don’t focus on the fear she felt while confronting her illness, elements of that fear are nonetheless evident in her lyrics.
“Fear may not be the first thing you think of when you listen to them,” she says of such songs as “Iceland” and “I Was a Bird.”
“But I think they speak to the desire to be free of burdens and troubles and the darkness and sense of disconnection I felt after I got out of the hospital — and to the sense of depression that descended after that. But then again I didn’t think that the album was going to be a narrative of just those things. I very much wanted to address the good things that came out of it, as well.”
Evidently, one of the good things that emerged from her illness was a kind of fingers-crossed optimism. The title song and “What You Look For,” despite cataloging the world’s woes, are ultimately affirmations of hope, not for her alone but for all of humanity. “Zephyr” proclaims her to be spiritually at one with the wind.
Indeed, her lyrics are filled with images of flight and escape.
“I think it’s a real basic human desire and conundrum in our lives,” she muses. “On the one hand, we want to be settled and feel rooted to something. At the same time, it’s a very human impulse to want to break free, to be without responsibility or accountability. The two impulses always bump up against each other.”
The push and pull of marriage is another conundrum she meets head on in “We’ve Traveled So Far” and “I Put My Ring Back On.” The latter song seems almost painfully personal, but Carpenter says she had no trepidation about including it.
“Why should I?” she asks. “It was a song I wrote about my own experience, and I’ve certainly done that in the past. I truly believe I’m not the first person to pull off her [wedding] ring and hurl it across the room. That’s how I tended to channel my feelings sometimes early on in my marriage. I just felt like it was real life, and that’s what came out.”
Carpenter says she draws on experience and reading equally for inspiration.
“Whether or not you actually write something from some source that you’ve read, or it provokes a thought that you eventually take to a song, either way it’s definitely one of the places that I feel songs emanate from,” she says.
“I’m a reader of newspapers. I can’t live without The New York Times every day, and I can’t live without the books that are piled high on my nightstand. When I’m on the road and there’s a long day waiting for sound check, I’ll have the bus drop me off at the local bookstore where I can just kill five hours. I’d rather do that than sit in a hotel room.”
One of the most intriguing songs on Miracles — “Mrs. Hemingway” — arose from reading, Carpenter says.
“A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, came out in a new edition last summer,” she explains. “I had read [the original edition] in college, and at that time, I remember being fascinated by his first wife, Hadley Richardson. All we know of her is what he would sort of offer up in little tidbits. I thought of her as a very sort of shadowy figure that I always wanted to know more about. What happened to her after their early life in Paris [when] he fell in love with her best friend and left her?
“I found a couple of out-of-print books on the Internet, and I spent a month just digesting every detail I could find about her. What pleased me on certain level was [discovering] she ended up marrying a diplomat and having a very happy life after the sadness. But she was never bitter. She was always full of respect and love for Ernest Hemingway, even though she rarely saw him after they parted.
“I just wanted to try to capture that extraordinary time in their lives and in the culture of the world. In his memoir, it’s as if he’s saying that his greatest powers as a writer and as an artist were during those early days when they had no money and nothing but friends and their dreams and each other to rely on. It was before the corruption, before the women, the fame and the money. I think that’s a very human story.”
“4 June 1989” on the new album was inspired, Carpenter notes, by a New York Times article on Chinese dissident Chen Guang. Now an artist, he was one of the soldiers who put down the 1989 student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with gunfire. She tells the story as Chen Guang might have seen it and links it to other suppressions of human rights.
Although Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and Bob McDill might give her a run for the money, Carpenter is probably the most literary singer-songwriter to ever grace country music. She’s certainly the most unlikely member of that diverse Tribe of Hank.
Educated in private schools, including Brown University, and tested at folk music venues in and around Washington, D.C., Carpenter was unaccountably signed to Columbia Records’ country division in the late 1980s. Her first album, Hometown Girl, came out in 1987 but yielded no hits.
Carpenter finally charted in 1989 with the Top 20 “How Do” from her second album, State of the Heart. This feat made her a de facto member of the now fabled Class of ’89, which also included Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson and Travis Tritt.
While her songs — even the hits she co-wrote with Nashville songwriting veteran Don Schlitz — ignored all of country music’s blue-collar conventions, her career still mushroomed. Between 1989 and 1994, she won four Grammys and was twice voted the Country Music Association’s female vocalist of the year. One of her albums sold 4 million copies, another 2 million, yet another 1 million and three others 500,000 each.
Her image got a crucial boost at the 1990 CMA Awards show when she sang the sarcastic “Opening Act,” which chronicled the indignities beginning performers suffer in their task of warming up crowds for superstars.
“I had written that as a novelty song, really, that I played in bars,” Carpenter recalls. “Irving Waugh [who was executive producer of the awards show] heard it one night, and it was Irving who facilitated the opportunity for me to play it on the CMAs.
“When they first asked me, I said, ‘There’s no way I can possibly do that.’ The song was a lot dirtier. They kept saying, ‘You can do it, you can do it.’ … I was standing on the side of the stage, just about to go out there, and Michael Campbell, who was then managing Ricky Van Shelton, said to me, ‘That was a great career you had going there, Carpenter.’ Those were the last words I heard before they pushed me out there and I sang it. I didn’t know what would happen. I certainly didn’t expect a standing ovation.”
But she got one. From then on, she was a country darling.
Because she never lived in Nashville, Carpenter says she wasn’t fully involved in the artistic ferment that took place there through the late ’80s and the ’90s, when country music was the hottest format going.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time in Nashville ever,” she says, “or enough time. I do think of those times as being very special. I remember going to Radney Foster‘s house out in the country for a guitar pull. I’d never heard of anything like that. There was John Hiatt and all these other people I’d never met before, sitting around having potluck dinner and then playing songs. I remember thinking, ‘This is the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’
“I look back and I have nothing but just gratitude for being able to make my little corner of the world down there. It was nothing that I ever imagined I would find. To this day, it’s sort of extraordinary to me that I even got a record deal at the time. And yet I made some wonderful friends, and I found a community there that really did support songwriters.”
On April 27 of this year, the Americana Music Association and the Newseum’s First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., presented Carpenter with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award.
“I was completely flabbergasted and honored,” says Carpenter. “It was completely out of the blue. Rodney Crowell attended, and Judy Collins was there and Eric Brace [of the band Last Train Home]. It was incredibly special, and I’m still buzzed about it.”
To Carpenter’s delight, it was folksinger Collins who made the presentation.
“That was the first time I ever met her, and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “I grew up knowing every line of every song she ever did.”
As part of her summer tour, Carpenter will return to Nashville for a July 16 concert at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.