Thursday, May 14, 2009

Class of 89 - Mary Chapin Carpenter

In honor of the 20th anniversary of debut of Country Music Class of 89, I am writing a series of posts on each of the artists. I am including those artists who debuted in 1989 – Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Travis Tritt, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I am also including artists – Vince Gill and Lorrie Morgan – who had their first true commercial impact in 1989.

Today's post will about Mary Chapin Carpenter

I have seen Mary Chapin Carpenter live in concert twice. The first time was 1992 at the old Guthrie Theater where a seat in the 3rd row. Two things immediately struck me. One was she was wearing cowboy boots (she had her jeans pulled over the boots), and two she sounded different live than she did on the radio. Her voice on the radio had more power than it seemed she had live. I had never and still have never encountered an artist who sounded so much weaker in concert.

That said the evening was enjoyable. Mary Chapin (she dislikes being called Mary) seemed to be having fun, and so was the crowd. “I Feel Lucky” had just peaked on the charts and Mary Chapin closed the main part of concert with it. The crowd ate it up and after an enjoyable evening I was heading to the parking lot when I overheard a group of young people excitedly talking about how Mary Chapin’s country was just as cool as rock music. I thought to myself her is woman on the move.

Without going into a long dissertation about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s career, here are some highlights of her career:

  • Her 1989 album “State of Heart” produced 2 Top 10 hits (“Never Had It So Good”, and “Quittin’ Time”)
  • Her 1990 CMA Awards performance of “Opening Act” won her national attention.
  • “Down at the Twist and Shout” from her second album “Shooting Straight in the Dark” became a major radio hit , and her energetic performance of the song on the 1991 CMA raised her profile even more.
  • Her 1992 album “Come On Come On” produced four top ten hits and sold over 4 million copies.
  • Mary Chapin won CMA Female Vocalist of Year in both 1992 and 1993, and her profile kept rising as the “New Country Music Movement” swept forward to ever greater success.
In 1994 she scored her first #1 single with “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and her new album “Stones in the Road’ debuted at #1. Her performance of “Shut Up and Kiss Me” at the 1994 CMA awards became legendary especially after the song ended with her kissing rock music icon Little Richard on the lips. Her star never seemed to shine brighter.

I saw Mary Chapin in concert again in June of 1995. By then the bottom was falling out on her. After scoring her first #1 in 1994, she would go on to score one more top 10 hit. Her album sales dried up, and the awards stop coming. With no radio play, Mary Chapin Carpenter faded from the mainstream.

I remember seeing Mary Chapin that June night in 1995, she seemed small. Not in the physical sense, but in the sense that she could not command the arena. The Mavericks a highly respected country music group that had a brief, but great run as a band opened for Carpenter. They commanded the stage and held people’s attention. The Mavericks had no top ten hits, but the audience was drawn to this charismatic, talent group of young men who were there to entertain them. Mary Chapin could not match them and it showed.

I read later that the pressure of being Sony Nashville biggest selling act weighed Mary Chapin. She also later admitted she had battled depression.

I wonder two things about Mary Chapin Carpenter. First did she ever really what to be a superstar? I think the answer is no. In reality she was a folk singer who found an outlet for her music in the country music genre. Mary Chapin wanted to bring her guitar into a small theatre and play her slow, mellow, folk songs while occasionally mixing in a rocker or two. Big arenas, big stage shows, huge crowds, they were not for her.

The other thing I wonder about Mary Chapin Carpenter was did the fans she brought into country music stay fans of country music. The Washington DC born, Ivey League educated, Carpenter was not like other country artists. Her music was different too. She did attract people to country music. Did they stay, or did they come in, buy “Come On Come On”, hang around a while and leave? Likely many left.

By 1997 Mary Chapin Carpenter’s place in country music was gone. She made more albums, but they sold little. The only Mary Chapin songs I hear played on the radio are an occasional “Down at the Twist and Shout” or “I Feel Lucky”.

My own feelings about Mary Chapin are simple. I thought leaving that 1992 concert that she would be a superstar and I listened to her music often. However, by the time I left the 1995 concert her appeal for me was fading. It is ironic that though I own her first four albums, I have not listen to any of them for any length of time in over a decade. Why? I simply am no longer attracted to her music. Its appeal to me is lost.

Whether Mary Chapin appeals to me or not, I think you find this video of her singing “Opening Act” at the 1990 CMA’s enjoyable. Watch it now before it disappears from YouTube.