Though she can only be called a “country singer” in the loosest sense of the word, this folk songstress with an Ivy League degree was one of the biggest country stars of the early nineties. Throughout her career, Mary Chapin Carpenter brought sophistication to country radio while acting as the voice of the nineties woman.
Her 1987 Columbia debut album Hometown Girl was a popular record on college radio stations, but it wasn’t until her label began marketing her as a “country” arist that her career really began to take off. Mary Chapin was ambivilent toward the thought of being pigeonholed into any particular genre, but her being labeled as a country artist allowed her to reach a much wider audience than ever before, especially since country music was increasing in popularity. She released her first mainstream country album, State of the Heart, in 1989, which placed her among country’s famed Class of ’89. Between 1989 and 1995, Mary Chapin Carpenter scored an impressive run of seventeen Top 20 country hits.
Mary Chapin Carpenter began making a name for herself at the 1990 CMA Awards show, during which she performed her snarky composition “You Don’t Know Me (I’m the Opening Act).” The song took stabs at those in country music who had let their success go to their heads. Performing the song was a gutsy move for a new artist, seeing as she risked alienating key individuals in the music business – individuals who would determine the fate of her career. But the audience was able to appreciate the humor in the song, and gave Mary Chapin Carpenter a standing ovation.
In 1990, Mary Chapin released the album Shooting Straight In the Dark, which produced her biggest hit up to that point with the #2 “Down at the Twist and Shout.” She gave some extra authenticity to the Cajun-flavored record by having an actual “band from Louisianne” accompany her on the track. “Down at the Twist and Shout” won Mary Chapin Carpenter the 1992 Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
Mary Chapin’s 1992 album Come On Come On was a runaway success. Seven of the album’s twelve tracks became hits. The album’s first single was the Top 5 hit, “I Feel Lucky,” one of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s best-known ditties. With “I Feel Lucky” Mary Chapin once again netted a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
She repeated the win yet again with her 1993 hit “Passionate Kisses.”
Mary Chapin’s 1993 #2 hit “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” was arguably her finest and most memorable single. The lyrics were inspired by a 1970s Geritol commercial in which a man highlights his wife’s many accomplishments, and draws the conclusion “My wife… I think I’ll keep her.”
“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” tells the story of a wife who fulfills her many duties to her husband’s satisfaction, but does not consider her life truly fulfilling. It was the first country song in history to be nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy Award without having crossed over to the pop charts. The music video was taken from the CBS-TV special Women of Country, featuring appearances from Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Trisha Yearwood, and Suzy Bogguss.
Mary Chapin’s 1994 album Stones In the Road yielded the most successful radio single of her career with the #1 smash “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” With “Shut Up and Kiss Me” Mary Chapin Carpenter became the first singer in history to win the Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy Award for four consecutive years.
Country radio began to cool toward Mary Chapin Carpenter in the latter half of the decade. In 1996, she contributed the track “Grow Old with Me” to the John Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero. She released the album A Place In the World that same year, which yielded a few more minor hits, and sold respectably.
Since the turn of the millenium, Mary Chapin Carpenter has recorded several more studio albums that have been at a high artistic standard. She returned in 2001 with the album Time* Sex* Love*, which explored themes such as the need to take life at one’s own pace without indulging in materialism. In 2004, she released Between Here and Gone, the album that was to be her swan song for Columbia Records. Her 2007 album The Calling was released under the indie label Rounder Records imprint Zoe.
Mary Chapin Carpenter often struggled with depression throughout the early 2000s. She suffered a near-fatal pulmonary embolism in 2007 while touring to support The Calling, but she eventually made a full recovery. Her most recent studio album The Age of Miracles was released earlier this year.
Mary Chapin Carpenter has never sounded like your typical run-of-the-mill country singer, and her more recent efforts have strayed even further from traditional country music. Nevertheless, her memorable and well-crafted lyrics have earned her an honored place in country music history, not to mention a well-deserved spot on this countdown.