Mary Chapin Carpenter is the only artist that has ever won four consecutive Grammys for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. But she’s hardly “country” these days, a radio format that is more interested in tight jeans and pickup trucks than quality songwriting. The spot she best fits now is what has become known as “Americana,” but as she says, Americana isn’t a new concept. She’s a songwriter. She’s a rebel that broke through country radio two decades ago but refused to conform.
She wrapped a tour this summer with Joan Baez, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray as “Four Voices.” It was a unique opportunity for her to join some old friends and sing some old songs. Now, she’ll get back out on the road and share her own with her band.
How did the Four Voices tour happen?
It starts a long time ago. [laughs] I met Joan when I was 16-years-old. She came to my school. It’s a long story, but suffice to say, she’s meant a lot to me over the years in my life. It was about 25 years ago that Joan invited the Indigos to do some benefits with her and the Indigos invited me to join with all of them and that was the first time that we did what has become what we call “Four Voices,” where we collaborated on many songs and a few solo turns and we weaved in-and-out with one another musically. We did that about 25 years ago for the first time and Joan’s 75th birthday was two years go at the Beacon Theatre in New York – we taped it for television – and me and Amy and Emily said, “Joan, let’s do the Four Voice again!” and she said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
We found that spot in everyone’s schedule where we could. We actually only did 10 dates this summer, but we loved it, we enjoyed it so much, I know Joan did…and hopefully we’ll be able to do it again.
Did you maintain that relationship with Joan from when you met at 16?
Well, from the time I was 16 until my 30s – that’s when I met her again. We were at her house rehearsing for these benefits and I told her, “Joan, I don’t expect you to remember at all, but you came to my school. It was a long, long time ago and I met you.” I told her the circumstances of it and she said, “You know, I wouldn’t have remembered if you hadn’t have explained it to me, but now I do.” So that was kind of cool.
How much did that encounter influence your path?
I have no idea. There’s so many random things that happen to you in life, and you have no idea what may have happened had something changed or been different. I grew up with her records. My parents had an incredible record collection of all different kinds of music and Joan Baez was in that record collection, so I certainly grew up with her. I really respect her activism; how she has always merged her art with her activism and worked on behalf of social justice and social change. It’s impossible for me not to admire that part of her career, as well as the endurance of her career itself. I think she’s extraordinary.
Aside from Joan, who are the other women that inspire you?
Oh my God. Well, we don’t have time for all of that. There are certainly women in music, but there are women in life who inspire me.
Are you familiar with the amazing website Brain Pickings?
Maria Popova. I think she’s amazing. I love her. I love Terry Gross. I think she has the best job in the world. Her job is so enviable because she brings such intelligence to it. Someone in the news? Hillary Clinton. I admire her. Art, politics, the world. There’s too many to name.
Why does Nashville have an issue right now with promotion of female artists?
WHY does Nashville? So you’re not asking “if…”
Oh, no, there is definitely an issue…
I don’t know. God, I don’t know. Is it some deep rooted misogyny? Is it some deep rooted sexism? What is it? I don’t know.
To me, a good song is a good song. Whether it’s a man or a woman that sings it, I tend to just connect with the song first, I think, then look behind it, I suppose. I don’t know the answer to that; it’s a puzzling thing. It’s a real brain twister and waste of great art.
In the 90s, you were among many great female artists that got plenty of radio play, and over the last couple of decades, that has dissipated.
It’s a different world now than when I was being played on commercial radio, so I don’t feel like I can speak to all of the changes and realities of it. I had incredible support from my record label and radio was great and all of those things came together. I had the benefit of that.
There’s always going to be people that don’t like your music and they’ll tell you why they can’t play it. A lot of it is arbitrary; everybody is allowed to not like something. But I don’t know why our current landscape is the way it is. There’s so many great artists.
There are a lot more liberal voices – male and female – in Nashville than we hear. Why do you think country musicians stray from using their platform to affect change?
Whether it was country music or some other thing, you could posit that they are afraid of losing their audience if they speak out for something. That’s the first thing that would occur to me – that people remain silent because they are afraid. It’s the reason a politician remains silent; because they are afraid they are going to lose votes. To use a phrase that I am allergic to because it’s so overused, but…at the end of the day, you have to look yourself in the mirror and be able to look at yourself. It will all come out in the wash. I don’t think that being in politics makes you a bad person, but there are some politicians that are able to do their job with conscience and others that do their job whichever way the votes go. And to me, I guess, it’s a similar thing. If someone doesn’t use their platform in country music…but then again, a lot of artists will say, “I’m just here to sing. I’m not here to advocate on a political position.”
I’ve personally never been able to separate what I do from what my beliefs are. The people that have criticized me over the years for merging those things, I can’t please them.
Has “Americana” been an easier umbrella to find a space under?
I don’t think Americana is new. Emmylou Harris and The Band – to me, those are the early artists who we could say were Americana. It’s been monetized, shall we say, in the last few years. But there’s an audience, there’s a constituency that, early on, fell between the cracks of commercial radio. And now it has its own place. And I think that’s terrific. There’s no longer the gatekeepers of the recording industry, labels. So many people can forge a career and make records in their bedroom hanging blankets on the wall.
The creatives and the makers – people have been able to forge their careers now, and if Americana is the place they feel they can do that, I think that’s wonderful. Because we should all be able to do what we want to do.
It’s great that it’s recognized. But it existed long before Billboard ever put it on the charts.
What inspired you to cover “Passionate Kisses?” How did you make that song your own?
I think it’s a perfect song. Whether you play it with a loud rock and roll band or if you strip it back like we like to do sometimes. I loved that song from the first time I heard Lucinda [Williams] do it, and I wanted to cover it. I wanted her blessing so she gave me her blessing when we were on tour years ago in Australia. And I’ve never regretted it. It’s an anthem and it speaks to the most basic human desire to love and to be loved and we all deserve it. What more could you want from a lyric or a piece of music? It’s wonderful.
Don Schlitz was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year, a man that you wrote with. What was it like writing with him?
He’s so intelligent. He’s so fast. He’s so smart. Writing songs with him is an intellectual exercise of the first order. It’s invigorating and it’s challenging and he brings out the best in people. And it’s an honor to know him.
Mary Chapin Carpenter comes to The Lyric on Wednesday, September 20. Rose Cousins opens. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available beginning at $32.