Music News & Reviews

Mary Chapin Carpenter performs with gratitude

Mary Chapin Carpenter, who performs Saturday at Lexington Opera House, says music, "to me, it's all about connections. ... I wouldn't do it if I didn't find it deeply meaningful."
Mary Chapin Carpenter, who performs Saturday at Lexington Opera House, says music, "to me, it's all about connections. ... I wouldn't do it if I didn't find it deeply meaningful." Russ Harrington

Mary Chapin Carpenter probably never realized it at the time, but her autumn 2009 performance at Equus Run Vineyards in Midway was in many ways a milestone.

It was the singer-songsmith's first Lexington-area show in nearly 17 years, one of her first performances of any kind after recovering from a life- threatening pulmonary embolism, and one of her final concert outings before going into recording sessions for her Grammy- nominated album The Age of Miracles, inspired by her recovery.

But anyone who thinks the album turned into one sustained reflection on mortality needs to give it another spin. Certainly, there are echoes of her health ordeal told in mildly masked affirmations, notably Iceland. But on the album-closing The Way I Feel, Carpenter stares down her demons, reembraces life and tears down the highway with Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down blasting from the car radio.

"Perhaps because I did have this sort of enforced hiatus imposed on me, I never realized what can go away," said Carpenter, 53, who performs Saturday at the Lexington Opera House. "You can lose your sense of identity and purpose. You can lose the things that just make you tick. And to be able to return to a life that gave me that identity and purpose is wonderful.

"I feel so fortunate. And without, as they say, 'getting all Oprah on you,' I feel like every day I experience these moments of gratitude are intense. Sometimes they just stop me in my tracks."

For nearly 25 years, Carpenter's songs of love, life, fortitude and, yes, despair have maintained a strong fan base that cuts across genre-specific lines. 1991's Down at the Twist and Shout, a collaboration with the masterful Cajun band Beausoleil, and 1993's Passionate Kisses, one of Carpenter's few recorded cover tunes (it was penned by Lucinda Williams), were robust and celebratory, and 1992's I Feel Lucky was a more obvious nod to Carpenter's country following, although all three singles were Top 5 country hits.

But 1994's Stones in the Road, 2001's Time * Sex * Love and even The Age of Miracles blurred stylistic edges. Their songs reached beyond country into modernized folk, and were written and delivered with conversational candor.

In a review of a January concert at Lincoln Center, Stephen Holden of The New York Times wrote, "The music of Ms. Carpenter is an unclassifiable hybrid of pop, folk and country that she performs in the low, steady voice of someone confiding her thoughts in a journal."

Carpenter said, laughing, "I leave the marketing to my manager and the record company. It's certainly not something I could ever get a handle on. I mean, I can look out into the audience every night and sort of see the faces to make some sort of general presumption as to what the demographic is. But I don't think I really want to. I guess I'm just not that interested in the science of it all.

"To me, it's all about connections. Music is the ultimate bait and the ultimate reward. It's the most wonderful thing to be able to share these stories with people and to feel this connection, to feel how these songs resonate with people. I wouldn't do it if I didn't find it deeply meaningful."

Sometimes that connection might be born in another time and place, such as Carpenter's brilliant 1990 snapshot of the song Halley Comes to Jackson. In other instances, it comes from the deepest well of her own experiences.

"There is a new song I've been playing. I haven't recorded it yet, but it speaks to these things you're talking about. And it came out of a lot of pain. It came out of a horrendous divorce for me. It's like, when you go through something like that, the only way you can really get back is to try and remember what makes you whole.

"It doesn't require a lot to be happy. But you have to figure out what those little things are and treasure them."