Mary Chapin Carpenter Biography
Last updated: 04/24/2013 01:50:26 PM
By capturing in song moments from life and presenting them in a way that makes them universal, Mary Chapin Carpenter has ascended to the heights of popularity in country music. An Ivy League graduate who refuses to don the customary country-and western attire, Carpenter may be an unlikely candidate for queen of country, but with her five critically acclaimed, genre-blurring albums and several hit singles, she has picked up five Grammy awards, two best female vocalist awards from the Country Music Association, and a best female vocalist honor from the Academy of Country Music.
A combination of country, folk, rock, and blues, Carpenter's music defies easy categorization. The singer herself has been compared to other indefinable artists such as Rosanne Cash, Nanci Griffith, and the Indigo Girls, but her sound and lyrics are distinctly her own. Although Carpenter has been embraced by the country music world, listeners from all backgrounds have found meaning in her depictions of the unheralded triumphs and failures of day-to-day life. "There's no self-pity in Ms. Carpenter's songs," Jon Pareles of New York Times (November 18,1992) wrote, "just realism tempered by wry humor. Few current songwriters look at the small domestic dramas of adulthood, and fewer still depict them with Ms. Carpenter's cliche-free clarity."
Born on February 21, 1958 in Princeton, New Jersey, Mary Chapin Carpenter (she hyphenated Mary Chapin in the late 1980's to emphasize her middle name, by which she is known to friends, but at the urging of her record company, she removed the hyphen in 1994) is the third of four daughters. Her father, Chapin Carpenter, was an executive with Life magazine, and her mother Bowie Carpenter, worked at a private school. Mary Chapin's first love as a child was ice skating, and she regularly spent summers in Colorado at various skating camps. She was also exposed to all kinds of music, and by the second grade she had learned to strum chords on an acoustic guitar. "There were four girls in my family, all within two to three years of each other," she told Ryan P. Murphy of the Washington Post (August 1, 1987), "and every one of us liked something different. My older sister liked classical stuff, my middle sister liked musical comedy, and my younger liked rock-'n'-roll." Added to that eclectic mix was her father's taste
for jazz and her mother's preference for opera.
In 1969 the Carpenter family moved to Tokyo after Chapin Carpenter had been named publishing director of Life's Asian edition. They returned to New Jersey in 1971. Three years later Chapin Carpenter accepted a job in Washington, D.C., forcing the family to relocate again. Shortly thereafter Chapin and Bowie Carpenter divorced, and Mary Chapin left home to finish high school at the exclusive Taft School, in Watertown, Connecticut. At least partly because of the instability of her childhood, she became something of a loner, and she began writing music as a way to cope with her insecurities. "In high school I wasn't ever a member of the cool group," she told Karen Schoemer for a New York Times Magazine (August 1,1993)profile. "I just wasn't cool enough, I wasn't pretty enough, I wasn't savvy enough, or something. And I was so convinced of all these feelings that that's when I really retreated into playing music, being by myself, scribbing my thoughts on paper."
Although she had been accepted by Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, Carpenter deferred college for a year following her high school graduation in order to travel. Around the time of her freshmen term at Brown in 1976, Carpenter, at the urging of her father, began performing at open-mike nights in Washington-area clubs. As she recalled in an interview with Richard Harrington of the Washington Post (June 1, 1989), her first public peformance was an uncomfortable experience. "I got a really nice response,"she told Harrington, "and I couldn't even talk between songs because I thought I was going to barf." Despite her continuing stage fright, she performed at the campus coffeehouse at Brown, and during summer vacations from school, she became a popular regular on Washington's thriving acoustic-music scene.
After graduating from Brown in 1981 with a B.A. degree in American civilization, Carpenter returned to Washington, D.C., where she soon became a fixture on the bar circuit, covering songs by such well-known performers as Bonnie Raitt, Billie Holiday, and James Taylor, but late nights and hard drinking soon wore her down. "I had a big problem," she admitted to Rolling Stone (March 21, 1991) reporter Eliza Wing. "It's still so painful to me to think about how I was." Carpenter made the necessary change in 1983, when she took a job in Washington as an administrative assistant with the R. J. Reynolds philanthropic organization, which was involved in human rights issues in Central America and South Africa. The steady paycheck allowed her to cut down on performing and to take better care of herself, so that she was able to concentrate on her writing. Eventually, she began to slip some of her own numbers in among the popular cover songs she sang in her shows.
Carpenter quickly gained a reputation as a talented songwriter, and at the 1986 Washington Area Music Awards (known as the Wammies), she won five Wammies, including best new artist and best songwriter. The awards convinced her that she might have a successful career in the music business. "I started to have a bit of a sense that, 'Gosh, I'd like to think of myself as a singer/songwriter. I think it's okay,'" she has said. In November 1986 Carpenter was close to signing a record deal with Rounder Records, an independent folk-music label, when Gary Oelze, the owner of Carpenter's musical home, the Birchmere Club, in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, told Larry Hamby, an executive with Columbia Records, about Carpenter and her immienent agreement with Rounder Records. Hamby flew to Washington the same day, took in Carpenter's show, and listened to a tape she had made to sell at her concerts. The next day, he offered her a contract with Columbia Nashville, the label's country music division.
The demo tape that had caught Hamby's attention became Carpenter's first album, Hometown Girl. Released in the summer of 1987, it was comprised mostly of ballads that averaged five minutes in length. The album sold only about twenty thounsand copies in its initial release, but it enjoyed considerable critical success. The country music critic Robert K. Oermann, in an article in the Tennessean, hailed her as "one of the great songwriting discoveries of 1987", and he included Hometown Girl on his list of best country records of the year. Carpenter also took home five Wammies in 1987, including artist of the year, best vocalist (country and folk), and best songwriter.
Despite her success, Carpenter continue to work at R. J. Reynolds, touring only on weekends and during arranged time off. It was not until May 1989, when she negotiated an agreement between her own GETAREALJOB Music and EMI/SBK Music to public her songs that she devoted herself to music full-time. "For me it was more of a validation than signing my record contract," she told Judith Bell of ELLE (November 1990), referring to the publishing deal. "It was somebody saying, 'We believe in you as a songwriter.' I never expected to receive acknowledgment for my writing." In 1989 she again dominated the Wammies, picking up eight awards.