Mary Chapin Carpenter recently ended her annual summer tour with a homecoming at Wolf Trap. The singer-songwriter’s family moved to this area in 1974, when she was 15. She played covers and originals in area clubs for many years, before being signed to Columbia and releasing her first record, Hometown Girl, in 1987.
If Mary seems worldly, it comes of having seen the world at a young age. When she was 12, her family moved to Tokyo, where they spent a couple of years; her father, an executive at Life magazine, wanted to start an Asian edition of the periodical. If she seems to come by her musical talents naturally, it runs in the family; her mother was a folk musician, and Mary learned to play her guitar and ukulele from a young age.
Though her first album didn’t gain much commercial traction, avid fans and critics took notice of Carpenter from the start. Hometown Girl allowed her to get booked for the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and The Academy of Country Music named her Top New Female Vocalist in 1989. With her second LP, State of the Heart, she scored a Top 20 country hit with the lead single, “How Do.” With another song from the record, “Never Had It So Good,” she got her first Top 10 hit, and she charted two more singles, “Quittin’ Time” and “Something of a Dreamer” — the former was nominated at the 1991 Grammy Awards for Top Country Female Vocal Performance.
Over the course of her career, Carpenter has been acknowledged to be both a premier songwriter and an outstanding singer. She’s won major awards for her original compositions as well as for her vocal work on interpretations of others’ songs, most notably Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses,” which was the second tune of her set at Wolf Trap on August 26. Mary noted how people were singing along, saying, “Now I know what Taylor Swift feels like.”
Watch the official music video for Mary Chapin Carpenter’s cover of “Passionate Kisses” by Lucinda Williams on YouTube:
“Passionate Kisses” was recorded for her fourth record, Shootin’ Straight In The Dark, which marked the pinnacle of her commercial success. While she’s not reached the same heights on the charts since, she’s remained an important and still-popular presence. As time has passed, she’s been included in the Americana category. That makes sense for her sound, which isn’t hard country — there’s no pedal steel or fiddle or mandolin here, just guitar, bass, keys, and drums. It allows makes sense given the content of the songs: Even on early hits like “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” feminism inspired her lyrics, and her politics are decidedly progressive. She’s also a Brown graduate, and her writing is more introspective, intellectual, and literary than what goes on in the mainstream country world, especially today.
That progressive standpoint was evident in the first song of the night, “Why Shouldn’t We,” which she declared a “statement of purpose,” and included an encouragement to use our votes. “Shut Up And Kiss Me,” was, fittingly, the third song, following “Passionate Kisses,” followed by “Secret Keepers” and “Stones In The Road.”
I was surprised to see the band leave the stage so early in the set for the next song. Mary explained she had taken July off from touring to work on a new record. Sometimes, when she’s writing, she said, the songs come quickly, but other times, they can take years. (I can relate: sometimes, I see the shape of a project or a story very quickly, and the writing itself is fast, but, at other times, I struggle to get even a few words in on a project on a given day.) “Girl and Her Dog” was inspired in a place where Mary frequently goes to walk; one day, she say a women drive by in an old pickup truck, two dogs sitting next to her on the bench seat, and she began to construct a narrative, which finally came together last month. The song might still go through some small changes, she said, but it’s mostly finished.
The band returned, gradually, for “Everybody’s Got Something,” then “Why Walk When You Can Fly.” (A bad joke: because my arms get tired! I’ll be here all week.) “I Feel Lucky” was followed by a cover I wasn’t expecting: Dire Straits’ “Bug.” Mary throw out a couple of curveballs with her choice of covers, playing The 1975’s “I’m In Love With You” to start her encore. These unexpected moments are always one of the fun parts of her concerts. The set was rounded out with the title track of her latest album, The Dirt and the Stars, the aforementioned “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “The Hard Way.” She finished her encore with one of her biggest songs, “Down At The Twist and Shout.”
Watch the official music video for “Down At The Twist and Shout” by Mary Chapin Carpenter on YouTube:
Los Angeles band Dawes opened the show with a meaty, one-hour set. Mary always has great openers, and she consistently gives them enough time on stage to showcase their work. Last year, Dawes released their latest album, Misadventures of Doomscroller, which contains longer songs that lean into their more experimental tendencies and borrows from their jam band influences. That first song, “Someone Else’s Cafe,” might be described as something like the Grateful Dead playing a Warren Zevon song.
The band dug into their catalog for the next tune, “If I Wanted Someone,” followed by “Crack The Case.” Lead singer and songwriter Taylor Goldsmith explained how that one is about how we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other; it’s a point I’ve heard frequently, from people as different as Taylor and Steve Earle, just a few days before this. The set included another song from the new LP, “Comes In Waves,” along with old favorites “Roll With The Punches,” “Feed The Fire,” “A Little Bit of Everything,” and “When My Time Comes.” They finished their set with “All Your Favorite Bands,” which got an enthusiastic reaction from the crowd.
We’re in a moment where, in country music, reactionary and regressive ideas have been at the forefront. This concert was a reminder that, while we may be in that moment, the music that endures — like Mary Chapin Carpenter’s — is deeper, more thoughtful, more empathetic and sophisticated. If you’re willing to look for it, you can find a lot of great music that is, in one sense or another country.