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The time for a musician to think about releasing a "greatest hits" record is actually fraught with more danger than most fans might realize. On one hand, the artist can consider herself quite fortunate to have amassed enough popular material to even put one out. Of course, at the same time, she also runs the risk of saying (at least somewhat) that her best work is behind her. And that does put a sort of stopping mark on her career.
It's something that multi-Grammy-winner Mary Chapin Carpenter thought about -- an awful lot -- last year and was determined to change. Not surprising for a woman whose literate songs and divergent musical styles have placed her in the outer orbit of what passes for popular country today.
"I think the term 'greatest hits' is really a misnomer," she says. "It's never the last word on an artist, but it's become associated with that. I wish there was another word for it. And then I see 'greatest hits' packages on artists that put, like, two records out. They've got seven or eight songs and two outtakes masquerading as new tracks. It's a real disappointment to me, and it also speaks to a lack of actual involvement from the artist."
Her approach toward her own compilation/hits record, the recently released Party Doll (Columbia), is a fresh take that will satisfy both die-hard and new fans alike, many of whom will appear in the audience during her extensive promotional tour.
The 17 tracks run the gamut from familiar radio songs ("I Feel Lucky," "Passionate Kisses," "He Thinks He'll Keep Her") to live takes ("The Hard Way," "I Take My Chances") to covers (John Lennon's "Grow Old with Me," the Mick Jagger-penned title track) to some rarities ("10,000 Miles" from the movie Fly Away Home and a version of "Can't Take Love For Granted" from The David Letterman Show).
And the whole thing works. "I just thought that greatest hits packages are so formulaic, they're just a snooze," Carpenter says, noting that the fact that the rights to some of the unreleased and outside project material had just reverted back to her. "I thought just dropping them at the end of a regular album would have been kind of jarring. So I put together this collection, keeping in mind that the songs would come from many different places. I think the result is a lot more [exciting] than what's normally done."
One of her favorite tracks on Party Doll is the live version of one of her best-known numbers, "Down at the Twist and Shout." Performed during halftime at the 1997 Super Bowl in New Orleans, it features esteemed Cajun music band Beausoleil (which is also mentioned in the lyrics) as her backing band.
"Oh, it was just your average everyday gig," Carpenter says with a laugh. "But it was really fun. And just to do it with Beausoleil was worth the whole thing."
Carpenter's music, like that of fellow iconoclasts Roseanne Cash and Lyle Lovett, has always been more informed, more intelligent than that of many of her country music contemporaries. Still, she has managed to have both commercial and critical acclaim, including five Grammys, four combined Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards, four No. 1 singles, and two gold and three platinum records. But these numbers and accomplishments don't really tell the story half as well as any one of her more powerful songs.
Born February 21, 1958, in Princeton, New Jersey, as the third of four daughters, Carpenter moved to Japan with her parents at the age of ten and immediately began to take an interest in music and playing the guitar. The family returned to New Jersey two years later then moved on to Washington, D.C., in 1974. Encouraged by the thriving music scene there, Carpenter played endless "open mike" nights while studying at Brown University, where she received a B.A. in American Civilization. After graduation, she played more clubs and bars and made demo tapes with her then-boyfriend, bassist John Jennings. Even after their relationship soured and Jennings married, they remained a team both in the studio and on the road.
"It's our history together that makes it a unique combination, and it wouldn't be the same with anyone else," she says, her voice dropping a tone. "My feelings for him are so strong; he's just my dearest friend as well as my musical inspiration."
CBS signed her to its Columbia label and released Hometown Girl in 1987. The next year, while touring, Carpenter received three standing ovations at the Kerrville Folk Festival, something usually reserved for major stars. State of the Heart in 1989 spawned her first hits with "How Do" and "Never Had It So Good," which even crossed over (very briefly) into the pop charts.
Her big foray into national attention came with 1990's Shooting Straight in the Dark, which contained the vibrant, dare-you-to-keep-seated "Down at the Twist and Shout." It also hinted at a slight split in her growing fan base: the party people who like gumbofied, Louisiana-bred party tunes and those who would be future Lilith Fair attendees. (Carpenter would also play the show.) They preferred the more emotional, wounded and downright heartwrenching (but not maudlin) numbers such as "Quittin' Time" and "This Shirt."
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