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Episode 5: Mary Chapin Carpenter

About Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter is a Grammy-winner, a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, a terrific guitarist, and the writer of hundreds of songs that she crafts with eloquence and emotion and sings in a voice that is dusky and tone-true. On this episode of Voices in the Hall, she talks about her entry into country music, her days in the Washington, DC-area folk scene, and her life as a creator.

Peter on Episode 5: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter lives up on a Virginia hill, in a remote place of remarkable beauty. It’s a home nice enough that leaving it usually seems like a lousy idea, which is too bad for the rest of us, because it’d be nice to have her around more often for coffee and conversation.

There’s a term that gets used on the news when the authorities are looking for someone who may have been involved in something bad, and that term is “Person of Interest.” Mary Chapin is a person of interest, not because she’s done anything wrong (though who knows what goes on up there on that pretty Virginia hill?), but because she’s an interesting person, and she’s interested in books and people and human motivation. Funny how people who take interest in such things invariably become interesting themselves.

Mary Chapin’s life and upbringing are unusual for the country music business. She was raised in New Jersey, and was educated at Brown University. I suppose that makes her the single most successful Brown University affiliate in the history of country music. She spent lots of time in the Washington, DC, area, which is where I first heard her. I was a high school kid, and used to go hear her at a great place called The Birchmere, a listening room where I heard exceptional musicians including Nanci Griffith, Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Don Williams, and my favorite progressive bluegrass band, the Seldom Scene.

With the exception of the Seldom Scene, those artists traveled to DC from other places. But Chapin (we all called her “Chapin” back then, and I continue to refer to her that way even though I try not to because I suspect it might be slightly irritating . . . Hey, everybody used to call me “Pete”) was from the DC scene and we who cared about music were all thrilled when she signed a major label country deal in Nashville. Then she started having hits and we were even more thrilled. Her first big album was called Hometown Girl, and her success seemed like musical affirmation for a city known mostly for politics . . . And politics . . . And politics. Also, for politics.

I don’t usually get starstruck around musicians, but Chapin — jeez, I’m sorry, Mary Chapin — still makes me a deer in the headlights, even though we’re friends. I think her writing is so special, and her voice is her voice, and her recordings are her recordings. She’s done this thing for three decades, and she has done it admirably and gracefully. I want to bang on her bucolic Virginia door and demand an explanation for her artistry. Instead, I spoke with her on one of her trips to Nashville, and I think if you listen to the conversation you’ll find her to be compelling and intriguing and beguiling.