Mary Chapin Carpenter Biography

Review The Artist (11)

Mary Chapin Carpenter-photo
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.

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Your Concert in Seattle 4/19/2013 | Reviewer: Beth Vaughn | 4/23/13

I so enjoyed seeing and most of all hearing you perform. Shawn was grand too. It was fun to watch you interact with your long time friend. I hope you do more touring in the Northwest. Your poetry and music have warmed my heatr and helped heal me a number of times through the years. I think you're enough of everything ie. smart cool pretty and a spiritually enlightened seeker of light. I'd have let you hang with my peeps back in the day GF. Peace, love and Blessings.

Welcoming a lonely African | Reviewer: Gonwo Dahnweih | 4/10/12

Mary, just arriving here alone from a bloody civil war situation in Liberia, West Africa in 1990, your music brought me comfort. I stopped over in Harrisburg, PA for a month and then lived in the Washington, DC area for four months, calling it "home," even now. Every mention of DC as my home (though I've lived in the Chicago area since then)brings up pleasant memories of your music...the marvelous guitar sounds, the penetrating lyrics, the angelic voice and smooth/satisfying feelings that sweep over my soul.

My first favorite has been "Something Of A Dreamer." The album, "State of the Heart" has been played in my home for years with love and gratitude. My daughter, Na-Zay is a great fan of yours as well, "This shirt," being her #1 choice.

THANKS for blessing my life with your music for years now! I really wish to see you one of these days. Be blessed!!!

Awesome | Reviewer: Cindy | 10/7/11

I listened to your music as a young woman. You kind of dropped off the screen for a while and I always wondered what happened to you. Well, I saw you tonight in York, PA and you were AWESOME. Your voice is one of the best women's voices I've every heard. Your tonal quality is unmatched and hasn't changed one bit. I love your voice. You can play a mean guitar and your band is very talented as well. You talked about how hard it is to leave your 5 dogs and 4 cats when you go on tour. I can sympathize with that. I hate leaving my 7 dogs and 13 birds behind when I go on vacation too. Welcome back Mary Chapin Carpenter! It's great to have you back and you put on a terrific show...thanks a bunch! I loved it. I knew the first time I heard your voice, you had a very special quality. You are one of my favorite singer/song writers EVER! Love your stuff!!!

Birchmere | Reviewer: Anonymous | 9/11/11

I'll never forget your performance at the Birchmere in Alexandria in 1986. The house was full, but I persuaded the doorman to sneak me in, and luckily he plunked me down in an open spot just feet from the stage. We in the audience were mesmerized by your voice - as we are still. Gary Oelze recognized your potential, and right he was!

I love your music | Reviewer: Susan Roy | 8/23/11

Hi; I am from Saint John New Brunswick Canada and I love your singing. I haven't heard from you in along time and wondering are we going to be hearing more music from you in the future.


Sue Roy :)

Maybe It's Not Too Late | Reviewer: Justine | 6/30/10

Dear and precious Mary...there is no one like you and it has been a joy tonight to have seen and heard you in have made a difference in this world by writing and singing your heart & soul. Thank you for doing and being what I didnt dare to. I chose Nursing and have always wondered why music was only a 'hobby'. I suppose family pressure for academia.
I am now disabled for a number of years at 60, deal with pain,depression and grief from many losses and music is my greatest comfort and strength, my prayer language. I wonder where or IF I even have a 'Calling" anymore.
Tonight at the AMT in PA you sang MY soul; the dreams, the longings,the need and the hope for the days to come.
Not much time left for me. You renewed faith in miracles...they still happen, though too often one gives up hope and only feels like the "windshield" when things dont work out the way we hoped they would.
YOUR purpose is fulfilled. I wish we met in the early days. Perhaps both of our lives would have been different.
Your verses are powerful and moving;leaving you vulnerable but blessing us with the essence of who you are. What a sweet and precious gift!

I wonder if you know how much you have influenced, changed or enriched millions of lives? Do you comprehend that? It's more than applause, it goes much deeper.
Never ever underestimate your power. You have a wonderful gift and you have used it. Well done!
Perhaps now,I should 'Just' "shut up and kiss you". I love you as I'm sure many do. Know that too. I'm not nor have ever been a 'groupie'...Just a loner who loves solitude but yearns too for that intimacy we all need.

It's time for a new song..."Maybe It's Not Too Late". Write it for on it from your end and I'll do the same. Maybe it's NOT too late.
Brava! on a wonderful performance.

Disabled Man Finds Peace In Mary Chapin Carpenters Works | Reviewer: M.Snyder West Hartford Connecticut | 6/1/10

Your meaningful music and poetry brings clarity to my mind when I'm overloaded with speeding thoughts and anxiety. I especially like the song "Ideas are like stars." Sometimes the kindest acts of intellect go unnoticed and unappreciated.People who are disabled are marginalized and disenfranchised.

Police Officer | Reviewer: mickey king | 5/30/10

I really like your music and hope if you ever come to Hoover Alabama please stop by the Days INN at the Galleria we would love having you stay with us. Respectfully yours Mickey & Dianne King

special | Reviewer: Tom MUENCH | 4/10/10

I have listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter and attended concerts for years. Please tell her , that even though I am an old guy, I really feel her songs. I have been in education for 50 years and built speeches around her lyrics. Tell her she is the real deal. I know she has had pain in her life. When that happens , it is important for her to know that she has helped millions of people who needed a good song. You are special May Chapin. tom muench

Looking for a song | Reviewer: Faith | 3/21/10

What album was the song " all I have to do is ooooo oooo make love to you..I think that's the way it goes, I haven't heard it for a long time then today it was on my radio station which 99.9 gator country in Jacksonville, FL I really want that song. Can you give me the title and what CD it's on...thank you

SONG TITLE | Reviewer: Anonymous | 4/18/06


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