Posted October 9, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Mary Chapin Carpenter: Getting comfortable with it all

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Mary Chapin Carpenter

An inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Mary Chapin Carpenter has sold some 13 million albums over the course of her career and recently won an Emmy award for her work on Nashville Public Television’s “No Going Back: Women and the War.” Calling from her Virginia home on a day when she had interviews lined up “like rush hour planes at LaGuardia,” Carpenter talked to us about her upcoming tour with fellow singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin. The two toured together last year and they’ve booked another leg this fall.

You started touring with Shawn Colvin last year. What made you want to collaborate with her?
We didn’t know if it would work out. Well, we knew we would have fun. You hope that that translates to the audience. I make a point of trying to give the audience a reference point every night and explain that she and I have known each for so many years. Before last year we had never officially done a tour where it’s just us on stage all night long trading songs and harmonizing and riffing and being unscripted and irreverent. We wanted to try it. It’s been almost a year and a half. We’ve had a wonderful time and the audiences are wonderful. We just kept adding dates and now these dates in October and November are the last ones we have on the books. It makes it very bittersweet. We don’t even have to rehearse. We can get on a plane and meet up and we have an intuitive way. Not to say that we don’t put thought into it. We could be in our wheelchairs and beyond, calling each other up to do gigs. I think we could do that. I hope that we will.

How did you meet?
I was living in the D.C. area and she was coming to The Birchmere in Alexandria. It’s a great club. They knew me there and they would let me stand at the soundboard and watch shows. Shawn was coming to town and I showed up and that’s the show where we actually met. Somehow, we were playing the same festivals. We ended up doing a lot of things together. She was one of the few people in my life when things went crazy and my career went kaboom, she was one of the few people who understood how wild and crazy it was. It was very intimidating, at least it was for me. As extraordinary as it was, it can feel isolating. She understood that.

Do you agree about politics?
I don’t know if I’ve ever had a conversation with her about politics. We’re far more interested in low culture. The fact remains that if we were on opposite sides of those issues, probably we wouldn’t get along. Maybe we’d be like Mary Matalin and James Carville. Her sense of humor is so remarkable. Irreverent is a polite word for it.

I think you tend to work a few covers into the set. What songs have you been covering?
It varies from night to night. We tend to write the setlist after soundcheck. When we were in Boston last spring it was after the bombing, so we did the Bee Gees song “Massachusetts.” What we try very hard to do, even in the larger halls, is to keep it intimate and suggest that it’s not any different than if we were in our own living rooms.

What I always maintained from the first time that I got signed is that I thought of myself as a singer-songwriter. From that jumping off place, you can find yourself in many different musical places.

You said early on that you thought of yourself as a singer-songwriter more than a country artist. Talk about the way your music tends to defy genre. Has it been a struggle to get people to think in those terms?
Not really. It’s easier now than then but it was just evolving. What I always maintained from the first time that I got signed is that I thought of myself as a singer-songwriter. From that jumping off place, you can find yourself in many different musical places. I thought there wasn’t a catch-all term that felt comfortable. That one helped me feel the most comfortable. There were artists in country music that embodied that. People like Rodney Crowell, who had great success on country radio, and Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, and Rosanne Cash. They play folk-based country music, and they existed comfortably in those places. I didn’t know Nashville until I got a record deal. I knew those artists but when I saw that they came out Nashville, and it made me feel like maybe there is a place for me.

Did you ever live there?
I didn’t. I was either in D.C. or south central Virginia. I always lived near my family. Nashville is a town full of artists. I thought about moving recently. There’s a real community there.

Talk about your approach on Ashes and Roses. Did you try to do anything different this time around?
It came out a year ago June and it was a really personal record about the last few years of my life and the transitions I went through. I couldn’t be more proud of it.

Upcoming 2013 Tour Dates

Oct. 14

Oct. 16

Oct. 17

Oct. 19

Nov. 2

Nov. 6

Nov. 9

Nov. 10

Cleveland, OH – Playhouse Square

Syracuse, NY – Palace Theatre

Toronto, ON – Koerner Hall

Stage College, PA – Eisenhower Auditorium

Springfield, MO – Gillioz Theatre

Austin, TX – Paramount Theatre

Pensacola, FL – Saenger Theatre

Oxford, MS – Gertrude C. Ford Center


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].