Mary Chapin Carpenter Celebrates ‘The Age of Miracles’
By Donna Hughes
Gentle textures envelop the listener in the first seconds of “We Traveled So Far,” which opens The Age of Miracles, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s newest album, on Zoe Records, a part of the Rounder Records group. On this track, a guitar strums soothing waltz time, Dan Dugmore’s faraway steel guitar keens, and the melody rises and falls, floating on the vocal’s whispered breeze.
All 12 tracks on the album (as well as “All the Sad Songs,” a bonus track exclusively on the Barnes & Noble release) are written solely by Carpenter. Beautiful and reflective, they make it hard to grasp that just three years ago, Carpenter was struggling to beat a life-threatening pulmonary embolism. After touring behind her previous album, The Calling, she developed blood clots in her lungs and, while recovering at home, sank into what she has described as a painful depression.
“It was a terrible darkness,” she remembered. “At that time, I think it was as dark as it was because there was no guidebook and no one had said anything to me about how to prepare for it. I didn’t understand what was happening. And now, with the benefit of hindsight and the help and support and wisdom of other people, I realize that was a very natural response to that event.”
The fruits of that difficult harvest are the songs that fill The Age of Miracles, on which she confronts the shadows from which she emerged in a kind of therapeutic explosion. “When I started writing songs about six months after I got out of the hospital, I wasn’t writing really to make a new record,” she explained. “It was because I had always done it and it felt like the right thing to do. It felt natural to explore my feelings through song. I think of it as something as an act of faith to have been writing songs because I didn’t know at that time when or if I would ever put them on an album, when that record would ever come out, when I would go back to work. So the act of writing songs made me feel better, and it was just something I wanted to do without a sense of the destiny or the end result in sight.”
A spiritual element permeates the album and its title track, as suggested by their reference to miracles. Still, Carpenter cautioned, “I don’t mean it in a religious sense and I am not claiming that I believe in them. So often we look around and we say, ‘Oh, my God! Look at that iPad! How did those men land on the moon?’ We bandy that word about so loosely and freely, and a lot of people do take it very much to heart as something connected to formalized religion. For myself, I was just posing the idea that if we live in an age of miracles, are we lucky enough to regard our entire lives that way and to believe not so much in the supernatural but in twists of fate and extraordinary luck and sort of reinterpret them as miracles?”
For Matt Rollings, who co-produced Carpenter’s Between Here and Gone (2004) and The Calling (2007) and played keyboards on her sessions as far back as Shooting Straight in the Dark (1990), The Age of Miracles was a true collaboration between two like-minded individuals. “As co-producers, Mary Chapin and I have gotten to know each other more and more over the course of the last three records,” he said. “And I feel like we really hit our stride with The Age of Miracles. The combination of the amazing songs she brought, the band we were able to cast and her willingness to ‘show up’ so profoundly made the process feel somehow as if the record was making itself, like we were all just there to witness its birth.
“Working with Mary Chapin in any capacity, as a sideman or producer, has always been a tremendously satisfying and soulful experience,” he continued. “She’s one of those rare artists who is not content, ever, just to get things done. Instead, she insists on continuing to dig deeper, musically and emotionally, until the truth of it is found. Like all true artists, she doesn’t always know how to get there but she knows when she’s arrived.”
Arms loaded with songs, Carpenter entered Nashville’s Sound Stage Studios in late 2009 to begin work with the excitement of a child at Christmas. “It’s such a beautiful studio, and they had put flowers in the studio for me, and I hadn’t seen everybody in a long time, and I got teary,” she revealed. “It was really wonderful to be there. There was a lot of love in that room.”
Part of the affection shared by Carpenter and other participants in this session owed to the fact that she is only an occasional visitor in Music City. Far more often, she’s at home on her farm in Virginia with her husband Tim Smith and a multitude of pets. “I live here in my little corner of the world,” she said. “I sit at my desk and I write these songs. Years pass and it’s a very solitary endeavor. I have to work hard to be a part of the world.”
Still, coming “home” to the studio, reuniting with musicians and friends she had not seen in quite some time, proved especially pleasurable. “So here are these three years that pass and I have these songs,” Carpenter said. “I go to Nashville, I walk into the studio for a number of weeks, and every day I’m surrounded by these lovely people who are not only helping to create this wonderful project but are giving so freely of their friendship and fellowship. It felt like this balm, this soothing sense, to be in their company. It was as if I had been terribly thirsty and I had much to drink. I felt soothed by it and I felt grateful for it. It had been such a difficult time, and it felt great to be with these people and have this record come as a result.”
Several familiar voices join Carpenter’s on The Age of Miracles, her twelfth studio album. Alison Krauss appears on “I Was a Bird,” and former touring partner Vince Gill harmonizes on “I Put My Ring Back On.” Despite the years of friendship they’ve shared, Carpenter still had to be convinced it was no intrusion to call and ask Gill to sing on her album.
“I was literally in the midst of doing the vocals and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, Vince would be great for this song,’” she said. “But I am one of those people that just contort when they have to call someone and ask for a favor. I know how busy he is, and I just felt shy and I didn’t want to bother him. But Vince and I have a business manager in common, and she came in to give a listen to what we were doing. I played her that song, and she went, ‘Oh, my God! You should get Vince to sing on that song!’ I looked at her and said, ‘I can’t believe you said that. I was thinking the same thing.’ So we called him — but if she hadn’t said that, I don’t think I would have called him. I’m just too shy.”
Gill remembered being “flattered that she asked. That’s the best part about having friends, is they call you from time to time and say, ‘Hey, come and do this with me!’” He added with a laugh, “Once again, the dude gets the high part, reconfirming that I sing like a woman — just trying to keep that out there.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame member was involved with one unforgettable highlight of Carpenter’s career, on the 1994 CMA Awards. Carpenter, who had won Female Vocalist of the Year honors at the 1992 and 1993 CMA Awards, performed a hilarious version of her song “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” being interrupted repeatedly by knocks at a door on the stage set and opening it to reveal Awards host Gill, then Brooks & Dunn and ultimately Little Richard, with whom she smooched theatrically and left as the audience cheered and her band vamped. She had made a strong impact as well with her debut at the 1990 CMA Awards, where she delighted her peers with “Opening Act,” an account of the ignominious trials of having to open for unappreciative headliners.
“Two people come to mind immediately. One is Irving Waugh and the other is Walter Miller,” said Carpenter, looking back on that night and remembering that broadcast’s Executive Producer and Producer, respectively. “Irving and Walter created the opportunity for me to come out and sing ‘Opening Act,’ which was sort of my introduction to the CMAs and seemed to lead to so many other things. And subsequently, Walter would get with me and say, ‘OK, have you got any ideas?’ He was very collaborative. We had a great time coming up with thoughts and ideas of how we wanted to present a song. It wasn’t just ‘stand there and sing it.’ I feel like any chance I had to do something different or special, it was because of that collaboration and the willingness of Walter and certainly of Irving to give me those opportunities.”
Shifting back toward the present and looking toward the future, Carpenter ends The Age of Miracles with one of its more buoyant tracks, “The Way I Feel.” “It was important for me to end the album with that song because I do feel like albums are more than 12 or 13 songs thrown together,” she summed up. “Ultimately, I feel like it’s a record of strength and resilience, and I wanted the last song to reinforce that. It’s a song about how I acknowledge things are hard, things are tough, but I’m going forward. It’s not a perfect world and I’m not a perfect person, but I’m going forward.”
© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Mary Chapin Carpenter Photo Provided by Country Music Association