Like all musicians in the Age of Coronavirus, singer/guitarist/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has been forced to alter her usual professional life. Instead of being on tour right now opening up for Sugarland or playing duo dates with Shawn Colvin and promoting her upcoming record The Dirt and the Stars, she’s stayed put.
But she’s hardly been stagnant. The “Songs from Home” series on her YouTube channel – in which she performs one tune, solo, from her house – is now up to 30 different videos. And counting.
“When I did the first one back in March, I was like everyone and we were just walking in circles trying to figure out what to do. And I just wanted to be useful in some way, to contribute something positive. I figured I play music, so I’d play a song!” she says. “And then it just kept going. I was astounded by the comments from people and the kindness. And it’s just kind of grown. And there’s no reason to stop it unless I run out of songs!”
She’s also a self-described “pod freak” who listens to a lot of them during her daily five mile walk. We ask her which ones in particular make her subscription list.
“Oh, let me see if I can scroll through my phone while I’m talking to you!” she laughs. “Let’s see…Fresh Air, New York Times 1619 Project, New York Times Book Review, New Yorker Radio Hour, On Being with Krista Tippitt, Poetry Unbound, the Stubborn Light of Things – that one’s beautiful, it’s about nature walks – This American Life, Pod Save America, Political Gabfest from Slate, Serial when they have new ones – blah blah blah!” In fact, she loves podcasts so much that she’s just started her own called One Story with spoken word artist Sarah Kay that debuts July 24.
Mary Chapin Carpenter has been a musical force since her 1987 debut Hometown Girl. She broke through big in the early/mid ‘90s on the country charts with uptempo hits like “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances,” “Quittin’ Time,” “Shut Up and Kiss Me” and a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses.” Meanwhile, songs like “Dreamland,” “The Hard Way,” “House of Cards” and “Stones in the Road” pointed to something deeper.
But Carpenter was never a real fit (or personally comfortable) as straight “country,” as she also drew from folk, rock, and poetry influences. Later records explored concepts, real world events like September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, and even orchestral arrangements.
The Dirt and the Stars (Lambent Light Records/Thirty Tigers) is her 15th regular studio album. And while she’s always been an exceptionally deep writer when it comes to lyrics, most of the 11 tracks here are a little extra deep. They clearly come from a well in which wisdom is gained from experience, and personal evolution is a process.
She was partially inspired by New York Times writer Margaret Renkl, who has written “we are all in the process of becoming,” and that being a student of art or music or life doesn’t stop at a certain age. Carpenter uses this thought as the basis for record opener “Farther Along and Further In.”
“I must have read that quote sometime last year, and it just spoke to me. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking in an organized fashion like ‘What are the themes?’ But at the same time, what she wrote just resonated with what I was trying to say with these songs,” Carpenter offers.
Discovery, learning, self-awareness, and making mistakes are a lifelong process – and anyone who thinks they have it all figured out, she feels, are wrong. “To think there’s nothing more to know or to learn. There’s not only a stupidity in that, there’s an arrogance,” she amplifies. “The gift of growing older is the wisdom that comes with it. But at the same time, you need to be open to what you don’t know.”
Much of the material on The Dirt and the Stars is low-key, wistful, and spare/acoustic. Subjects include the end of relationships (with many at fault) in “All Broken Hearts Break Differently,” “Asking for a Friend” and “Old D-35”; father/son dealings in “Nocturne”; clear-eyed nostalgia in “Between the Dirt and the Stars”; and depression in the powerful “It’s OK to Feel Sad.” In the last, the message is clear: sometimes you have to break apart in order to break through.
“You can’t know the good without the bad. You’re going to know tragedy and deep sadness and loss, but also joy,” she says. “I don’t think you can appreciate one without being acquainted with the other.”
Of the two more uptempo numbers, “Secret Keepers” is the first single. But it’s “American Stooge” that will likely garner some attention as it finds inspiration in an unlikely source: The Republican U.S. Senator from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham. Carpenter calls him a straight up “sycophant,” and he inspired these lyrics:
“Ah he just can’t lose, he’s all over the news/Batting sweet baby blues/It’s the American way/To hell with the truth/He’s sucking up to the dude/He’s an American stooge/And maybe he likes it that way.”
And while it started out as a character study of Graham specifically, Carpenter says it evolved into a sort of broadside against toadyism in general, and she’s not afraid to name names of other politician “stooges:” Susan Collins, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, and Stephen “The Evil” Miller (“He’s so foul!” she notes).
And she despises how many of them are handling the current pandemic for the entire country, even as she tries to figure out what coming out eventually on “the other side” even means.
“First I have to say this. I know I’m very fortunate to be safe and healthy with a roof over my head and not worrying about putting on PPE every and going into…I know that,” she says.
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“But I hope I come out of this healthy and well and a better understanding of my own personal strength, my ability to be patient, and to listen closely to others. For the longest time, I’ve only heard myself in my head. Long isolation can affect your mental health. This time has allowed me to have as much empathy and compassion as possible for my fellow citizens.”
As for the Sugarland and Shawn Colvin tours, Carpenter says it’s all up in the air now. And some around her even questioned releasing a new record at all during the pandemic. So instead of being on the road, Mary Chapin Carpenter will continue to talk walks, film homemade performances, listen to and create podcasts, and enjoy the occasional funny internet video to lighten the mood.
“I’m as easily amused as the next person!” she laughs. “The thing going around in my sister’s text today is this video of a gentlemen with his French bulldog. They’re sitting next to each other eating burritos. And the bulldog is in his human’s arms, and the human is eating his burrito with both hands the same way the dog is! It’s hard to explain. I don’t know why it’s funny, but it is. You have to search for it as soon as you get off the phone with me!”