Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Calling

mccarpenter.jpgToo 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.

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Related: Ten Minutes With Mary Chapin Carpenter (Interview 3/22/07)

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4 thoughts on “Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Calling

  1. Thanks for reviewing The Calling, I`m glad you liked Chapin`s storytelling.
    I do have one question – can you please explain “twangy” as I have never thought of Chapin`s music in such terms

    Alison, UK

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    On her early work, Chapin straddled the fence between pop and country with songs like “You Never Had It So Good” and “Right Now” – Columbia, her label at the time, thought the country niche was a better fit obviously, mainly because the musical elements fit. Chapin played a Rickenbacker guitar, and used a Johnny Cash downstroke, had a bit of drawl when she sang (though I’ve always loved the little whistle/lisp at the end of a line).

    That’s what I mean when I say “twangy” – and it got her some country Grammies early on. But like the Dixie Chicks, Chapin was never really “adopted” by the country community. It was more like foster care. During the “Between Here and Gone” tour she was introduced by a pair of local country radio DJs – the station wasn’t playing a single track from her new album, and I would have bet the newest Chapin song on their playlist was “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”.

  3. Hiya Michael,

    I wonder if her being placed into country early on was less a function of her sound and more a function of her storytelling style of songwriting… the singer/songwriter “genre” was still in its infancy then on a large scale. Had she emerged after Shawn Colvin and Suzanne Vega, perhaps MCC would have been developed/promoted on similar lines to them.

    When I think tawngy it’s more a sound than a genre fit, like Billy Ray Cyrus, or even pre-Natalie Maines Dixie Chicks. Early DC was *definitely* country sounding (I likened their first release, “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans” to bubble gum country – very twangy but also very light and upbeat). MCC never felt like “country” to me, though my only real exposure to country growing up was the AM radio on the bus to school – really twangy country stuff.

    I’m just glad she is still making music! See you in Lebanon next week?

    Amy

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