Too cool for country yet too twangy for rock, Mary Chapin Carpenter predated a wave of hard-to-peg performers like Patty Griffin and Josh Ritter. “The Calling” is in many ways a reckoning of her years as an industry outsider. “Your Life Story” and “It Must Have Happened” continue the Americana pop sound defined by Carpenter’s early work (“Shooting Straight in the Dark,” “Come On Come On”), while “Why Shouldn’t We?” is a more optimistic take on the ruminating Sixties sentiments found on “Stones in the Road.”
“The Calling” is also her most personal work, a reflection on the choices a performer makes, and the uncertain life that often results from them. “I was only trying to outrun the noise,” she explains on the title track, “there was never a question of having a choice.”
Other songs reflect upon home life (“Twilight” and “Bright Morning Star”), friendship (“Here I Am”) and the frailty of romance (“Closer and Closer Apart”). On “Leaving Song,” she sounds weary of constant touring: “you would think you’d have gotten used to it all by now/but each day it just gets harder/each journey alone.”
“On With The Song” name checks the Dixie Chicks, “three little stars in a great big sky,” and could easily have been on the “Shut Up and Sing” soundtrack. At times clumsily strident, as when she chides radio stations for “exhorting their listeners to spit on the sinners/while counting the bucks of advertising they’ll save,” the song still hits more than it misses.
It won’t win her back in country music’s good graces, which is probably the point. “This isn’t for the ones who would gladly swallow/everything their leaders would have them know,” she sings, leaving no doubt how she feels. It’s Carpenter’s most outspokenly political song to date.
Carpenter brought clarity to the September 11 attacks through the eyes of a recovery worker on “Grand Central Station,” a jewel from her last album (“Between Here and Gone”). On “Houston,” she explores New Orleans’ pain in the wake of Hurricane Katrina through the city’s refugees, who are “waiting for the buses/waiting for some Providence.”
It’s a kinder, gentler topical song. “Once we get to Houston/maybe it will all make sense,” she sings. No songwriter, save perhaps Richard Shindell, performs this kind of storytelling so masterfully.
Related: Ten Minutes With Mary Chapin Carpenter (Interview 3/22/07)