I don’t do music reviews. I am not a musician, and my knowledge of music’s technical aspects is severely limited. Then, I know if I tried to write a music review, I’d inevitably compare it to the entertaining, informative music reviews that Liz Bevarly used to do on Squawk Radio. I looked forward to those reviews. They educated me in musical genres and subgenres about which I was woefully ignorant and made me feel sophisticated and au courant on those rare occasions when I knew the music she reviewed. Remembering Liz’s music blogs would give me a severe case of writer’s block. So keep in mind that what you are about to read is not a review but an appreciation, a sharing of my delight in a CD that I’ve been listening to for a couple of months now.
I know a lot of writers listen to music when they write. Some of the best ones I know, including Julia Quinn and Jenny Crusie, share the soundtracks they create for each book. I do neither of those things. But I do turn to music when I get stuck on a particular scene or when I run into a dead end in my writing and have no idea how to turn around and head in a new direction. Music often gives me the answers I’m searching for. I’ve blogged before about finding inspiration for a scene in my first manuscript, "The Long Way Home," in Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in My Shirt.” But my favorite source for inspiration is Mary Chapin Carpenter, a singer/songwriter who found her biggest success as a country artist but whose music is an amalgam of country, folk, rock, and blues. I’ve been a fan since I first heard “Quittin’ Time” back in 1989 before her big commercial success of the early 90s. Her most recent CD, The Age of Miracles, is filled with the kind of intelligent, emotional, imaginative, truth-telling lyrics I love, lyrics that renew my own creativity.
Carpenter has been called “the most literary singer-songwriter to ever grace country music.” I think that quality is evident not only in the literary allusions one sometimes finds in her lyrics but also in her careful selection of richly connotative words and poetic turns of phrase. An avid reader, Carpenter finds inspiration in what she reads. She says, "Whether or not you actually write something from some source that you've read, or it provokes a thought that you eventually take to a song, either way it's definitely one of the places that I feel songs emanate from."
Carpenter wrote all twelve songs on Miracles. One of the most memorable songs, “Mrs. Hemingway” had its genesis in her reading of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about life in Paris in the 1920s. Carpenter found herself intrigued by Hadley Richardson, the first Mrs. Hemingway, of whom the reader catches only glimpses—and those always filtered through the perceptions of her husband. She wondered what happened to Hadley after Paris, after Hemingway left her for her best friend. The result of Carpenter’s wonderings and subsequent research is a lyrical portrait of the woman who found happiness and rejected bitterness while holding on to her memories. Any romance reader should appreciate the result, and the music, first only the piano and then a symphony of gorgeous strings, will capture a romantic’s heart as well.
Love is the greatest deceiver.
It hollows you out like a drum,
suddenly nothing is certain
As if all the clouds closed the curtains and
blocked the sun.
And friends now are strangers in this city of dangers
As cold and as cruel as they come.
Sometimes I look at old pictures
And smile at how happy we were,
How easy it was to be hungry.
wasn't for fame or for money;
It was for love.
Now my copper hair's gray
as the stones on the quay
In the city where magic was.
Paris, in attics and garrets,
Where the coal merchants climb every stair,
The dance hall next door is filled with sailors and whores,
music floats up through the air.
There's Sancerre and oysters, and Notre
And time with its unerring aim,
For now we can say we
were lucky most days
And throw a rose into the Seine.
Carpenter has described her songwriting as “excavation and exploration,” and while doubtless she excavates and explores her own life to find material, she also mines the culture. Her careful attention to both inner and outer worlds allows the listener myriad points of connection. “4 June 1989” is a surprising twist on the 1989 student protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The voice the listener hears is not one of the protestors but rather that of Chen Guang, then one of the armed soldiers putting down the protest, now a dissident and an artist. The final two lines are among the most poignant I ever heard.
Ah, I was seventeen that spring.
Ah, we were just obeying orders.
still see everything
Through the factory's yellow windows,
In the dirty
In the messages that find you then vanish in the ether.
They vanish in the ether:
I told them not to fear me, but history
tells the tale.
The artists and the poets fill up every jail.
held a rifle, I held an artist's brush.
Before Tiananmen, I even dreamed of
If you know Carpenter only from her best-selling 1992 album, Come On, Come On, that won her the CMA female vocalist title and placed seven hits in the Top 20, including "I Feel Lucky," "Passionate Kisses," "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" and "I Take My Chances," the closest you’ll come to finding that MCC in this album is in the sounds-like-country-radio “I Put My Ring Back On,” which like many of Carpenter’s lyrics manages to be both personal and universal. The lyrics capture the ambivalence that is part of most long-term relationships.
We can't speak like the lovers we used to be.
We can't change ancient
And love wounds with such simplicity.
And I threw it down, down
down down, down
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Time was, I'd be as
good as gone,
But last night I didn't want to run
'Cause here with you
is where I belong.
Last night I put my ring back on.
Carpenter’s deep alto is particularly suited for the favorite, introspective, intimate ballads, and she is backed to perfection by a talented group of musicians that includes the heart of her band: Matt Rollings (piano, B-3 organ), Russ Kunkel (drums), Duke Levine (electric and acoustic guitar), and Glenn Worf (bass).
For years now, I’ve claimed Carpenter’s “The End of My Pirate Days” as my theme song, but I think I may have found a new theme on this latest album: “ I have a need for solitude / I'll never be safe in crowded rooms. “ Listen.
Do you have favorite albums that you listen to over and over again? Or are you strictly a playlist person? What’s your theme song?