On the Road Again

By Simone Solondz / July / August 2004
June 15th, 2007

Between Here and Gone by Mary Chapin Carpenter ’81 (Columbia Records).

It comes as no surprise that the events of september 11, 2001, found their way into Mary Chapin Carpenter’s music; she was in Manhattan that day, within earshot when the World Trade towers fell. In “Grand Central Station,” a song on her new CD, Between Here and Gone, Carpenter tells the tale through the experience of a local ironworker, whom she heard on the radio describing the first days of rescue and cleanup.

“He was one of the first people to be there at Ground Zero,” Carpenter told National Public Radio reporter Steve Inskeep this spring. “When his shifts were over, he felt this life force was somehow asking for his help.” He found himself traveling to Grand Central Station and standing on the platform, “figuring whoever wanted to go home could just catch the train home.”

The song is quintessential Carpenter: simple finger-picked guitar accompanying deep, dusty vocals, with subtle backup instrumentation that buoys the whole without obscuring the clarity of the lyrics or watering down the emotion they convey. It’s an appropriate closer for a record that taps themes of travel both physical and spiritual.

Carpenter is back on the road herself this summer, performing, as she has done since her 1987 release, Hometown Girl. The six studio albums she has recorded since then have proffered a steady stream of accessible songs with nice melodic hooks. Carpenter crafts clever lyrics—thoughtful reflections on life’s ups and downs that speak directly to her listeners’ lives.

Musically, her CDs combine full-band, Nashville-style country rockers with slower, more sparsely produced ballads. The mix sometimes favors sweet ballads over songs you can bop your head to, but on Between Here and Gone Carpenter and her new coproducer, pianist Matt Rollings, got the balance just right. Despite the fact that her longtime collaborator, master guitarist John Jennings, is no longer behind the controls, the record features more strings than her previous releases: Rob Ickes’s emotive Dobro, great fiddle backup by Stuart Duncan, and contributions by Jennings, including subtle mandolin fills and haunting steel guitar. Carpenter’s guitar and vocals are always front and center, though, exactly where they should be.

Simone Solondz is a past editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

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July / August 2004