It's nothing but the music, stupid

CATCHING UP WITH ... MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER

A new best-of album reflects Carpenter's care with the songs.

July 04, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,sun pop music critic

Because Mary Chapin Carpenter went from coffeehouse singer to country music star, there has been an ongoing debate over much of the last decade about what her success really means. Some say that Carpenter's success came because she adapted her singer/songwriter ideas to fit country music standards; others argue that Carpenter in fact subverted the Nashville process, and effectively changed country music from within.

Carpenter, for her part, merely giggles.

"I just think it's so funny," she says, stifling a laugh. "Just the very notion of 'subverting' something. ..." Clearly, country music revolutionary is not a role she ever imagined for herself.

"Put yourself in my shoes," she says, over the phone from her home outside Washington. "I'm just playing music. I'm not on a mission, I don't have a cause. I'm just doing what I do. So when someone has an impression of what I do in a certain way, you just gotta crack up, sometimes."

Carpenter (who performs at Pier Six tonight) doesn't feel that she's a typical country singer and wouldn't even suggest that there is such a thing nowadays. And the perceived politics of country music -- for instance, the alleged impact that narrowing radio playlists has on marketing and artist development -- have little to do with what she sings, or why she sings it.

Carpenter's goal is to get the most out of her songs, to achieve the highest possible degree of musical grace and emotional impact. That was the case in the mid-'80s, when she was making a name for herself on the D.C. club circuit, and it remains the case today.

Never mind that the 41-year old singer has built a pretty impressive career over the last dozen years. Since first cracking the country Top 10 in 1989 with the singles "Never Had It So Good" and "Quitting Time," Carpenter has sold millions of albums, and even cracked the pop charts with her version of Lucinda Williams' "Passionate Kisses" in 1993. She's also earned a host of awards over the years, including five Grammys.

But what she seems most proud of are the songs themselves.

That's part of the reason why her sixth and latest album, "Party Doll and Other Favorites," is such an unusual best-of album: Because, as Carpenter explains, she had no interest at all in releasing the typical greatest hits collection.

"I've seen a lot of greatest hits packages that just seemed very generic," she says. "The sense that I got from these records was that they seem to indicate a real lack of involvement on the part of the artist. ... It was like anybody could have just slapped it together.

"I just felt that it should be possible -- and it should be important -- to try to buck that. To try to veer wildly away from it, if possible. And if there was an opportunity to have a sort of hits record and also include lots of other things, then why not do that?"

Among the "other things" are three new songs: "Wherever You Are," "Almost Home" and the title tune (a Mick Jagger song from his 1987 solo album, "Primitive Cool").

"I wasn't going to put a lot of brand-new studio songs on it," she says. "I mean, I always have stuff that I'm doing and working on. But it always takes me about 5,000 years to make a record." She laughs, and adds, "I figure I've always been slow and pokey, and I'm always going to be that way."

Still, "Party Doll" is mostly hits, omitting a couple of Carpenter's biggest singles (among them the Top-10 country hits "Never Had It So Good" and "Tender When I Want to Be"), but it contains a number of songs casual Carpenter fans may not know, such as the overlooked 1989 gem "This Shirt" and the slice-of-life ballad "Stones in the Road."

What the fans like

Carpenter chose some cuts because she knows that many of her fans enjoy the narrative songs in her repertoire -- even if they weren't exactly airplay-friendly. "I was very aware -- from what people would tell me, or write to me -- that there were certain songs that [the fans] really did like to hear," she says. "And just because something's been on the radio doesn't necessarily mean it represents the best thing you've ever done. It doesn't necessarily even show the whole of you."

In other cases, Carpenter included performances simply because she could.

"Certain songs were reverting back to me, songs that I had done for other, outside projects," she says. Her version of the John Lennon song "Grow Old With Me" had been done for a benefit album called "Working Class Hero ... A Tribute to John Lennon," while "10,000 Miles" was recorded for the film "Fly Away Home," and "Dreamland" was cut for a lullaby collection titled " 'Til Their Eyes Shine."

"I wanted to release these songs," says Carpenter. "Especially '10,000 Miles,' which had never been released. They'd never put a soundtrack on the movie 'Fly Away Home.' But I thought, 'Well, if I put these at the end of a regular studio album, it's going to sound kind of odd, because they're coming from so many different places.'

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