There’s an argument to be made that the average Mary Chapin Carpenter concert is made up of two audiences: those who remember her greatest hits from the singer’s country heyday of the early ‘90s, and those who continued to follow once she veered more folk.
Carpenter’s current Sometimes Just the Sky Tour, which lands onstage at Durham’s Carolina Theatre Aug. 3, offers plenty for both sets of fans. Named after the artist’s most recent album, it is a reimagining of tunes that stretches throughout the songwriter’s career.
Featuring a song from each of the singer’s studio albums, as well as one original written especially for the collection, each is a showcase of musical talent. Musician friends of Carpenter’s sat in a circle together, recording in real time, as they lent their talents to songs that have become synonymous with a career that is fast approaching the 30th anniversary of her 1989 breakthrough to the mainstream country charts.
“State of the Heart” from 1989 found Carpenter scoring four Top 20 singles (“Quittin’ Time” landing at No. 7 being its highest peak), and was the beginning of a remarkable six-year run for a singer-songwriter whose preceding album (1987’s “Hometown Girl”) made much less of an impact on the charts.
But “Hometown Girl” showcased more of the folk sound that the New Jersey-born musician would soon embrace more openly once the Shania Twain era of country music came to fruition.
We looked back at Carpenter’s career, and found some moments that seemed to telegraph Carpenter’s departure from the country music family at the time of her highest popularity.
1. Carpenter was uncomfortable with the country label from the start
In 1991, Carpenter told Rolling Stone, “I’ve never approached music from a categorization process, so to be a casualty of it is real disconcerting to me.” The singer had just won the 1990 Best New Female Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music, but was already beginning to strain against the yoke of being considered the new “hip” country artist for potential listeners who didn’t consider themselves country music fans.
2. Her lyrics always set her apart from her country music peers
Carpenter graduated from Brown University in 1981 with a degree in American Civilization, and that Ivy League education was always evident in the way the songwriter chose lyrics for a tune.
Take “Stones in the Road”, the title track from Carpenter’s 1994 album, which would become both her only album to hit No. 1 on the country album charts and the last to feature a song that would crack the Top 10 country singles chart:
“To see a train draped in mourning pass slowly through our town/ His widow kneeled with all their children at the sacred burial ground/ And the TV glowed that long hot summer with all the cities burning down/ And the stones in the road flew out beneath our bicycle tires/ Worlds removed from all those fires as we raced each other home.”
3. As did her politics
“Stones in the Road” was based upon Carpenter’s memory of accompanying her father to Princeton Junction, NJ, in 1968 to watch Robert Kennedy’s funeral train pass through, a moment that remained a keystone for the singer’s political leanings. Country music has always leaned right in its politics, and the early ‘90s were no exception, with Carpenter being one of the few openly-left leaning artists to receive mainstream country airplay.
During an interview with the Buffalo News in 1995, the singer said, “When I was young, ‘liberal’ was not a dirty word. I am a liberal. That is my right; it informs who I am and how I feel about things. I have that freedom. I didn’t realize that now the word ‘liberal’ is almost like an epithet.
“I guess I’m sometimes naive,” she told the Buffalo outlet. “I run into people my own age and think they’ll feel the same way I do. In fact, they’re not interested in what I’m interested in. They are very disconnected from their own community. They have children, but they’re not instilling the values we grew up with into their children. It’s inevitable, in time, that their children won’t have any value system. I think about that a lot.”
4. And then it was over
While “Stones in the Road” featured Carpenter’s last big success upon the mainstream country singles charts, her next three albums all managed to make an impact. 1996 saw “A Place in the World” peak at No. 3 on the Country Albums chart, and was soon certified Gold by the RIAA.
Her next two albums — 2001’s “Time* Sex* Love*” and 2004’s “Between Here and Gone” — failed to receive huge final sales tallies, but both cracked the Country Albums Top 10, and were far from bombs at the record stores. Columbia Records Nashville and Carpenter went their separate ways post-”Gone,” but only after a run of eight albums that were some of the highest regarded of the modern country music era.
Carpenter further embraced the folk format with the release of 2007’s “The Calling,” and Columbia currently features one of the more politically outspoken female artists in country music today in Maren Morris (“My Church”).
Who: Mary Chapin Carpenter with Emily Barker)
When: 8 p.m., Aug. 3
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 West Morgan St., Durham
Cost: $49.50, $59.50, $75
Info: CarolinaTheatre.org or 919-560-3030