Before Maren Morris, before Kacey Musgraves, before Kelsea Ballerini – literally, before any of today's country queens were even born – there was Mary Chapin Carpenter.
For a while in the early '90s, she sat at the rarefied nexus of mass, cult and critical acclaim, writing perfect songs that fit Americana traditions without kowtowing to Music City conventions.
And a time when the women of Nashville are still clawing for their due, maybe it's time Carpenter gets hers.
"It's truly an honor and a privilege to be waking up every morning still playing music and being able to travel and make records," Carpenter, 60, told more than 700 fans Thursday at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.
For more than 90 minutes, Carpenter shared stories, took questions and played hits hushed and heroic from throughout her 30-year career. It was the first stop of her fall tour, one that could have been threatened by Hurricane Michael.
"We're so glad that we got down here today," she said. "So sorry for the weather and all of the horror up in the Panhandle, and our thoughts are with everyone there. … We'll be thinking about everyone up there for a long time to come."
Carpenter's music has never been beholden to any one time or style, as proven by her latest album Sometimes Just the Sky, a reimagining of songs from each of her albums.
It's a spirit she's long brought to her live show. A longtime Nashville outsider, she's stripped all the twang from her voice, and most of it from her band. The boogie-woogie blast I Feel Lucky was remade with a coat of Bourbon Street juju; the triumphant The Hard Way surged forth like vintage Springsteen.
Bemoaning the fact that "a lyric can give away the era of a song," she gave a couple of big singles slight but significant tweaks. In I Take My Chances, "I lit another cigarette" became "I threw away my cigarette." And in He Thinks He'll Keep Her, "I'm sorry, I don't love you anymore" became "You can kiss my ass, I don't love you anymore." No apology.
Fans cheered when the rhythm kicked up on a hit like Passionate Kisses or Down at the Twist and Shout. And so, in her way, did Carpenter, yipping and hollering off mic to up the ambience. But mostly, she was just quiet. It wasn't just the contemplative tone of songs like Stones in the Road and Sometimes Just the Sky. It was her actual voice, a warm warble that occasionally dipped toward a whisper.
During a couple of Q&A sessions, Carpenter fielded audience questions about her dogs (they didn't come down from Virginia), how many guitars she has on tour (seven) and whether she believes in alien life (it's probably out there).
Then at one point, a guy raised his hand and tried to ask a question … to Carpenter's bassist, Don Dixon, who produced R.E.M.'s Murmur
"This is my show!" she protested.
Maybe it has to do with Carpenter's retreat from the spotlight in recent years, but stuff like this still happens all the time. People don't seem to be taking her legacy as seriously as they should. Not long ago, she said, a man at a meet-and-greet commented on how many guitars she had on stage.
"Do you really play those things," he asked, "or are they just props?"
And then there was the guy who once asked, "Is that a real song, or did you write it?"
You should have seen Carpenter's face recounting that one.
"Here's a real song," she said. "And I wrote it, g–dammit."
It was one of hers, all right: This Shirt, a warm-as-flannel song from 1989 that sounded like it could have been written yesterday. Maybe country radio should give it another shot. Carpenter's as sharp today as a lot of the artists she's inspired.
— Jay Cridlin