In a final ritual of preparation for the release of her 2016 album, “The Things That We Are Made Of,” Mary Chapin Carpenter printed out the lyrics to the record’s 11 songs — compositions that she had spent three years writing. What she was left with, after setting the lyric sheets side by side on her kitchen floor, were questions. Lots of questions. Curiously, the multi-Grammy-winning artist was pleased.
“I was reading the lyrics as if for the first time,” said Carpenter, who performs Friday night at Equus Run Vineyards in Midway. “Obviously, I made this album in the studio and sung all the songs, but seeing all those sheets next to each other, I noticed there were so many lyrics that were in the form of questions.
“In my mind, what that said to me was that these songs were not so much about knowing the answers in life, but realizing the questions and then asking them. That was far more important than knowing all the answers. Maybe you don’t realize until you get to mid-life that you don’t have the answers, and that’s OK. It’s more than OK. It’s a growth spurt to really accept that.”
He is completely unafraid, and I think that’s what makes him so great.
Mary Chapin Carpenter on recording with producer Dave Cobb
Perhaps best known for a series of country hits in the 1990s that regularly tugged at the genre’s boundaries (1991’s “Down and the Twist and Shout,” a romp with the scholarly Cajun band BeauSoleil a prime example), Carpenter’s music soon veered into songs rich with folk-directed introspection and melodies dressed in atmospheric grace. But if “The Things That We Are Made Of” resulted in a potpourri of questions, Carpenter had one solid answer loaded up: her choice of producer. Hired to oversee the recording sessions was Americana-and-more producer of the moment Dave Cobb, whose client list includes Kentucky country upstarts Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.
“I knew I had reached a place in my life where I wanted to change things up and do something different, but I was terrified by the idea,” Carpenter said. “It’s like going on a date with somebody. But Cobb is just this incredibly creative person. I would say, ‘Do you think we could? …” and before I’d even finish the sentence, he would go, ‘There is only one answer to that question.’ I’d say, ‘You haven’t even heard me ask it.’ He would say, ‘The answer is yes.
“In other words, he just believes you can try anything. Being in the studio is about exploring and taking chances. He is completely unafraid, and I think that’s what makes him so great. I love this project. I love the songs on it. I love playing them. I feel like it accomplished what I hoped it would, which was to take me to a new place musically and artistically.”
If you’re lucky enough, life becomes a beautiful circle.
Mary Chapin Carpenter
Cobb might have been new to Carpenter’s artistic inner circle, but the performers she spent a portion of this summer with were not. For 10 concerts in June, she was part of an ensemble called Four Voices. The other three participants were Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, and folk legend Joan Baez. Carpenter has known all three for many years, but that didn’t mute the excitement of sharing a stage with them, especially with Baez.
“I met Joan when I was 16,” Carpenter said. “I knew all of her records because my parents had them. Fast-forward all those years later, and I’m singing harmony with her on ‘Diamonds and Rust,’ and she’s singing harmonies on one of my songs. After all this time, if you’re lucky enough, life becomes a beautiful circle.”
A word that keeps appearing in Carpenter’s conversation is “gratitude.” It’s something she places strong emphasis on when talk turns to working with Cobb or harmonizing with Baez. But it’s also prevalent when discussing the overall arc of a career that has kept her in the studio and on the road for three decades. In fact, Carpenter’s debut album, “Hometown Girl,” was released 30 years ago this summer.
“I’m just like everybody else,” she said. “I wake up and have good days and bad days about the world I live in, about my job, about my sense of self. Hopefully, on the days I feel bad, I’m near someone who has a better perspective than I do and can help me through it. When I’m having a good day, I hope I can stop and be still enough to appreciate all the extraordinary things that my life has offered me. So it’s about making sure that gratitude is a really big part of my life, perspective and balance.”