Writing her way to success

June 25, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

If you had told Mary-Chapin Carpenter 10 years ago that she'd one day be a big-time country star, odds are she'd have thought you were nuts.

Granted, some of that incredulity would have been because she never thought she'd be a star of any sort. "I never thought I'd be anywhere," she admits. "I thought I'd just be working. I didn't imagine that I'd be able to have a career in music."

But even if she had imagined having a successful career in music, Carpenter would never have guessed that it would be in country -- much less that she'd end up as a Grammy-grabbing, Country Music Award-winning success. Because back then, she thought of her material as being basic singer/songwriter stuff, with no particular stylistic allegiance at all.

"I didn't favor . . . one thing over another," she says over the phone from a tour stop in Los Angeles. "I mean, I loved Emmylou Harris, and then I loved Randy Newman. I loved the Rolling Stones, and I loved dancing to Motown music. There were a lot of different things I liked."

So why did she end up in Nashville? For the same reason Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and Darden Smith and Rosanne Cash ended up there -- because that's where the interest in singer/songwriters was.

"At the time that I got a deal -- 1987 -- singer/songwriters were being signed in Nashville, and that wasn't necessarily happening in the pop division," she says. "So that's where I slid in. Otherwise, I don't think I ever would have been signed out of Nashville.

"Now that's changed a lot," she adds. "People like Lyle and Rosanne and Darden are out in the pop division. I'm not sure what that says about country music, but I sort of feel like all I ever tried to do was just find a niche."

Maybe so, but there's obviously more to Carpenter's success than that. There's her writing, for example. Like any country tunesmith, Carpenter always keeps a strong sense of story in her songs. But unlike old-school Nashville numbers, with their fondness for puns and clever wordplay, Carpenter's songs have a plain-spoken eloquence that relies more on careful observation and telling detail than any sort of verbal flash.

She's more Sandburg than Eliot, in other words, more Guthrie than Dylan. And that, really, is what makes it so easy to laugh along with "I Feel Lucky," or relate to the romantic sentiment of "The Hard Way."

"I guess I'm sort of the meat and potatoes kind of songwriter," she says. "It's all rather basic. I don't tend to impart great profundities, or write impressionistic songs, or things like that. It's nuts and bolts, but hopefully they're made interesting by the recognition of the daily things that we all know about.

"But there are times when I listen to someone who might have a more impressionistic style, and I'll wish I was less meat and potatoes, that I could paint that different kind of picture. But I guess that's just the way I am."

Carpenter adds that the importance of songwriting is one of the things she likes best about contemporary country music. "There are certainly exceptions to this, but for the most part, country is a real lyric-oriented format now," she says. "Some might say that [the writing] is still rather simplistic, but I don't know. I think there are some country artists who are putting forth really compelling and realistic music, and it's not simplistic at all."

In fact, at the moment her biggest complaint about country songwriting is that she's too busy touring to do any. "I'm itching to take a lot of time off to write," she admits. "I've found I just can't do it when we're on the road. When I'm home, I do it all the time, not even thinking about it. But out here, I'm too distracted or I'm too tired. When you're out on the road, it's a different job."

A different job, sure, but one she's more than happy to spend time on.

"I'm just glad to have a gig, you know?" she says. "I think it's stupid to take this stuff for granted. So much stuff comes up, and it's successful for awhile, and then it disappears. I'd like to feel that it's possible to have a career that lasts more than two years.

"I don't know if it is [possible], but I sure want to see if I can. So it's important, at least for me, to just be glad you have a gig, be humble about it, work hard at what you're doing -- and don't be a jerk about it, you know?"

Mary-Chapin Carpenter

When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave.

Tickets: Sold out

Call: (410) 625-1400

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