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.
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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."
Regardless, it seems that both camps, and a whole lot of others, bought her next record, Come On Come On, in 1992. It soared to triple platinum status and spawned seven singles, including "I Feel Lucky," "The Hard Way" and her version of Lucinda Williams's "Passionate Kisses." Far from being jealous, the gloriously white-trash Williams is the first to admit that the cover paid a lot of bills for her until she had her own success last year with Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. And actually the two make an interesting study in contrasts. Think of two sisters in a college bar on ladies night, one earnestly discussing the Brontë sisters with a bohemian and a longneck while the other tries to drink more shots and out-curse an entire fraternity. That's Carpenter and Williams, respectively.
Carpenter was suddenly everywhere, though sometimes carped at by narrow-minded Nashville types and fans of big-haired female singers for what she wasn't rather than for what she was. Nevertheless, Stones in the Road (1994) and A Place in the World (1996) saw Carpenter pursuing both the sensitive and rollicking sides of her style (though a bit more toward the former). Stones included the tracks "Shut Up and Kiss Me" and "John Doe No. 34," which she wrote after reading the obituary of a man whom no one had claimed.
During the ensuing tours, Carpenter often performed "Party Doll," a little-known track from a Mick Jagger solo record that some friends had introduced her to. The narrative concerns someone whose lover used to party with him, but now "the party's over." Carpenter slowed down the tempo for this version, upping the ache factor in the process and claiming the tune as her own.
"Not a lot of people know that [song], but I always wanted to record a version of it just a bit slower than I did it onstage," she says. So has she heard from Jagger himself on the take? "No, I haven't," she says with a chuckle. "And I don't expect to, although it would be so surreal..."
In addition to recording and touring, Carpenter also has been pursuing a number of outside projects and interests. She contributes time and money to a number of women's rights and social causes and has authored two children's books inspired by her songs ("Dreamland" and "Halley Came to Jackson"). Carpenter has also performed with symphonic orchestras, written essays for publication, toured overseas for troops as a guest of Defense Secretary William Cohen, sung at tribute concerts and even received that ultimate accolade: a guest shot on Sesame Street.
Her most recent high-profile gig was at "An All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash," in which country stars past and present performed The Man in Black's songs before he himself came out at the finale for a couple of numbers.
Another thing that is keeping her busy is work on the proposed musical Shane, based on the ole Western tearjerker of the same name.
"I was intrigued and wanted to try my hand at it," she says simply, of the project that was once attached to Dolly Parton and then Garth Brooks. "But we'll see what happens."
And finally there's Carpenter's presence on the Internet. A large number of completely fan-driven sites are dedicated to her life and music. "I should probably check in with them to see how I'm doing," she says with a laugh, while admitting that she hasn't paid close attention outside of the occasional e-mail or printed page that someone passes along to her. "It's a whole new world and actually kind of intimidating to me."
Carpenter does mention that she's not too fond of fans posting set lists to her shows, preferring that they remain top secret. But when it's suggested that these diehards don't really mind whichever songs she plays and would probably pay to see her sing nursery rhymes, she switches course. "I guess I hadn't thought of it that way before, but that's probably right."
As the title for Party Doll indicates, Mary Chapin Carpenter is coming to Houston ready to celebrate the past while providing a glimpse of what's to come from her still-evolving musical career. Fans can cry one moment and shake off the tears with their bouncing torsos the next. Just enough to whet their appetites for some gumbo. Wonder if that's on the Aerial concession menu...
Mary Chapin Carpenter performs Thursday, June 24, at 8 p.m. at the Aerial Theater, 520 Texas Avenue. Tickets are $22.50, $26 and $29. Call (713)629-3700 or (713)230-1600.
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