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Mary Chapin Carpenter
Between Here and Gone
In an age when consumers appear ready to embrace single-song digital downloads as the coin of the musical realm, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter returns with a cohesive, 12-song work. Between Here and Gone is her 10th album (including two compilations) and her first set of new material since 2001's Time*Sex*Love. With rich imagery and deftly delivered insights, Carpenter explores the fleeting quality of happiness and of life itself. Clearly, there was no shortage of inspiration this time around for the Virginia-based artist; all the songs were written by her and her alone. "There's something satisfying about being able to put something out as a whole," she says, "and have it stand together as an artistic statement."
The characters who populate Between Here and Gone often find themselves adrift, moving on "the street of broken dreams" ("What Would You Say to Me"), on a rain-slick highway headed into Houston ("Goodnight America"), or on some unnamed open road, answering the lure of open spaces ("One Small Heart" and "Luna's Gone"). Sometimes they're in the balance between one place and another on their life's journey ("Beautiful Racket"), or between one world and another ("Between Here and Gone" and "Grand Central Station"). Occasionally, they arrive, or at least they find a moment of peace ("River" and "Elysium").
Contemplating the daunting prospect of moving from one place to another - emotionally, physically or spiritually - Carpenter's characters also find themselves searching for courage and, more often than not, finding it. Musing in the title track about "the journeys made and the journeys yet to come," Carpenter sings, "And after all of this, the truth that holds me here/ Is that this emptiness is something not to fear."
"Grand Central Station," "My Heaven" and "One Small Heart" explore a similar theme. "I have these urges that come over me all the time about just wanting to escape and go," Carpenter confesses. "I don't know where they come from, and then they disappear, and I'm quite happy to be where I am. It takes a lot of courage to go, and it takes a lot of courage to stay."
"Goodnight America," she explains, "is like a travelogue, like all my travels of the last 15 years, all rolled into one. As I wrote the song, I started feeling this extraordinary affection for and amazement at all of the places I describe. I felt lucky that I could say I had been to all of them." The wild child of "Luna's Gone" takes off impulsively, "free as the wind that blows."
To give shape to the outstanding songs on Between Here and Gone, Carpenter enlisted as her co-producer keyboard virtuoso Matt Rollings. An in-demand session player and successful songwriter, Rollings played on past Carpenter works including Shooting Straight In The Dark, Come On Come On and Stones in the Road. His production credits include Lyle Lovett, Melissa Manchester, Edwin McCain Band, Stacie Orrico and Keith Urban. Carpenter and Rollings had talked in the past about working together. "I wasn't looking for a radical departure from what I had been doing, but rather an organic-feeling bridge to the next logical place with my songs," she explains. "Matt seemed like a good person to help me get there."
Her longtime collaborator and co-producer, John Jennings, was among the musicians on hand for tracking. He contributed to a recording experience that Carpenter recalls as "completely relaxed and wonderful, yet incredibly productive and inspiring." Surprisingly, Between Here and Gone marks the first time that the winner of five Grammys and two Country Music Association awards for Female Vocalist of the Year has recorded an album in Nashville. Her previous works (which have sold 12 million copies) were cut in Virginia or in London (Time*Sex*Love). Between Here and Gone also uses more fiddle and steel guitar than anyrecord she's done to date, albeit in styles that explore new directions.
Working in Nashville meant that Carpenter and Rollings could assemble an outstanding team of musicians, including Rollings on piano, Glenn Worf on bass, Dean Parks on electric guitars, Jennings on a number of instruments including acoustic guitars, Chad Cromwell on drums, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Viktor Krauss on acoustic bass and Carpenter herself on acoustic guitars. Rob Ickes played Dobro on "What Would You Say To Me," and singer-songwriters Mac McAnally and Garrison Starr joined Carpenter and Jennings on backing vocals. "To me, the best sessions are where everyone contributes and everyone feels free to contribute," Carpenter says. "We would sit around and listen back to tracks, and everybody would offer their ideas. Everybody who played on a track contributed to the track."
Carpenter's experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, affected her deeply and led later to the inspiration for "Grand Central Station." In New York to tape a PBS show in lower Manhattan, she witnessed personally the tragic events of that day. When the first tower fell, she and her band members were within earshot. In the aftermath, Carpenter felt great anxiety about the experience, and she wondered whether it would find its way into her music. On the first anniversary of the tragedy, she heard a National Public Radio interview with an ironworker who was one of the first on the scene. The life force he felt at the site prompted him to make a pilgrimage to Grand Central Station so that the souls of the departed could follow him there and on to their trains home. Carpenter responded to the story with her deeply affecting song.
For all the movement, the going and coming, and the time spent on the road in the songs on Between Here and Gone, Carpenter also explores the peace brought by arrival. She describes it in the vision of paradise she articulates in "My Heaven" ("No one's lost and no one's missing/ No more partings, just hugs and kissing"). And in the album closer, "Elysium," she suggests that the journey often can't be forced or the consequences controlled. "Sometimes you get there in spite of the route," she declares. "The road seems to know when to straighten right out/ The closer you come/ To Elysium."
Though it speaks to universal themes, "Elysium" also relates to Carpenter's personal experience and her own arrival. "The song is about meeting my husband," she says. "The very first day I met him, we took a drive." Carpenter married contractor Tim Smith in June 2002. After years of residence in the D.C. area, she lives now in South Central Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. "The song starts out, really, literally, about that drive through the mountains and coming up at the top of a mountain and looking out into the valley. It was a midwinter's day, but it was one of those days when it was almost balmy and everything was extraordinarily green. It's sort of a song about falling in love with him and, all of a sudden, after a long time of looking, discovering a place that I had wanted to be."
Those who find themselves drawn to the melancholy, searching side of Carpenter's past work need not fear that she's left that perspective behind. "Girls Like Me," a track she describes as "very autobiographical," suggests that she continues to explore the introspective side of love. "And hopefulness is like a drug," she sings. "It makes a girl believe in love." On "The Shelter of Storms," Carpenter sings about someone elusively on the move toward the ironic destination suggested by the title.
When the touring cycle for Time*Sex*Love ended, Carpenter took time off for the first time in years, to give her life the chance to unfold in new ways. She made a short tour in the summer of 2003, returning to places where she has built loyal audiences by delivering consistently solid concerts. Then, in fall 2003, she joined songwriting peers Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams in a national tour she calls "a once in a lifetime opportunity for me." Now, she delivers the first-rate artistic statement that is Between Here and Gone, exploring themes of loss and mortality, grief and renewal. Gone for a short while, Mary Chapin Carpenter is here again.
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