DAVE'S DIARY - 3 MAY 2016 - MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER INTERVIEW
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER HONOURS MUSICAL MEDIC
“On the way back home I will stop awhile/ ease this truck onto the shoulder of the road/ it's a long straight line that goes for miles and miles/ and it's as empty as a Great Plains Conoco/ I see you standing tall and kind of squinting/ in a field outside White Sulphur Springs/ don't need a cowboy hat, just a '33 Gibson/ and a little more time to make it ring/ as the sun turns red and the sky turns treasure.” - Livingston - Mary Chapin Carpenter.
When Mary Chapin Carpenter searched for inspiration for song characters for her 14th album The Things That We Are Made Of she dug deep into her own journey.
The five time Grammy winning singer-songwriter made a mercy dash to rural Montana to spend time with country doctor Ben Bullington who released five indie albums before he died of cancer at just 58.
Her visit to Dr Bullington's home in White Sulphur Springs (population 939), inspired her new song Livingston - one of three recent tributes to the late singer-songwriter.
Carpenter's journey was especially poignant.
She released her album at the same age - 58 - after surviving protracted battles with major health crises between her three Australian tours.
“It was about a friend of mine who passed away, he was a country doctor and a wonderful songwriter in Montana,” Mary Chapin told Nu Country TV in a call from her farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I was describing a photograph I had seen of him one day and standing outside White Sulphur Springs. He was a collector of wonderful vintage guitars. It was a song about taking a road trip to say goodbye to him knowing he was not going to be alive much longer. Also sense of the enormity of the west and the landscape and the lonesome drive afterwards. He died a couple of years ago.”
Dr Bullington father of three sons - Samuel, Joseph and Ben - succumbed to pancreatic cancer on November 18, 2013.
Fellow singer-songwriter Darrell Scott also honoured Bullington on his latest album 10 - featuring 10 of the doctors' songs - some scribbled on a pad between surgery at the 25-bed hospital in Big Timber, Montana.
He wrote lyrics on cards, boarding passes, propane receipts and crafted melodies on his 1933 Martin D-18.
Texan singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, former singing spouse of Mary Chapin's 1991 Australian touring partner Rosanne Cash, has also written songs about Dr Bullington.
Bullington was born in Roanoke, Virginia, attended Vanderbilt University and pursued a career in the oil exploration business. During a trip up the Amazon he contracted a near-fatal illness and decided to become a doctor.
He worked at an Indian reservation and in Alaska before settling in Montana, where he raised a family and produced five CDs. It was his cancer diagnosis, just one year before his death that convinced Bullington to leave his work and spend as much time as possible making music.
SISTER ROSETTA SOLACE IN NEW YORK CITY
“Oh Rosetta, am I the only one/ one day I am walking down a lonely street/ New York City's cold, there is no one to meet/ and at the corner of 57th and 7th Avenue/ I hear someone sing and I know it's you/ If I'm still and I cannot hear the choirs/ If I try to please the many instead of just the very few/ can you hear me through invisible wires/ Oh Rosetta, what should I do?” - Oh Rosetta - Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Mary Chapin revealed that Oh Rosetta was inspired by gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe who died at 58 in 1973.
The song's embryo was the day she cried in New York City on September 11, 2001, when suicide bombers decimated The World Trade Centre.
“It's a bit of an imaginary conversation that I conjured up,” Carpenter confessed of her song therapy.
“She was an extraordinary artist, probably her best known song was that wonderful song Up Over My Head, ( recorded in the 1940s by Sister Rosetta and Marie Knight as a duo.) She had such a positive and beautiful spirit. The day I started writing that song was such a difficult day in the world. The world was so troubled and so much tragedy in it as well as beauty. But on this particular day I felt very beset by these tragedies and I wondered what it would be like to speak with her. I feel better because of that. I had such terrible anxiety afterwards I couldn't get on a plane for months."
The singer's new album was produced by Dave Cobb who also released Southern Family - a compilation disc featuring other clients diverse as Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Zac Brown, Shooter Jennings, Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert and new beau Anderson East.
The Things That We Are Made Of was recorded at Nashville's Sound Emporium and Low Country Sound studios during the spring and summer of 2015 for Thirty Tigers and released here by Cooking Vinyl on May 6.
THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAINS DISTANCE
“Across the railroad tracks, down the gravel road/ headlights throw a beam on the way back home/ lie down, lie down, listen wide awake/ to the trains that roll, to the sound time makes/ it passes through the air like a summer storm/ catching on my sleeve like a roses thorn/ sometimes it whispers, sometimes it roars/ flies like the wind, waits by the door/ and I know you know and that's all I need.” - The Blue Distance - Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Mary Chapin was born in Princeton, New Jersey - third of three daughters of Chapin Carpenter Jr - Publishing Director of Life magazine Asian edition.
“It's talking about where I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains ,” Carpenter revealed.
“The hills nearby on my property have these extraordinary views. It's about that on a certain level but it's also inspired by a passage I read from an Icelandic writer - Roni Horn. He talked about the blue of distance, the power of emotion and the colour or emotion and the colour of loss. Also the colour of yearning and the idea of looking at it from you can never go and never be.
It's a beautiful passage and I was inspired by that. The Blue Ridge Mountains is a particularly lovely area. I live on a farm. I have no livestock but my neighbour has cattle.”
Although Carpenter split with Smith she wrote previous song Elysium - a song of hope - about a drive she and Smith took on the first day they met and fell in love.
“ River is just me trying to find my way in this new relationship,” she said in a 2004 interview.
"I didn't think I would ever meet anybody who could put up with me or I would like enough. I love my husband so much, and that's the difference between relationships I have had and this commitment to marriage. Learning how to fight is hard work. When things get tough, I'm like, 'I don't need this! I'm gone!' In fact, I've written about this in my songs. So the hardest part is just learning how to stay. We live out in the country in a house with four dogs, a million cats and a bunch of horses. It's very hard to leave home now. I cry every time I have to go away."
But she suffered divorce and also the death of her father in October 2011.
She also pulled two leg muscles and twice had surgery - first a herniated disc in her back and later a knee operation, forcing her to play concerts from a chair.
Carpenter previously suffered debilitating breathlessness while performing in 2007 and was diagnosed with life-threatening pulmonary embolism (blocked artery to the lungs).
“The health crisis was the most terrifying experience I've had. It's still hard to talk about. And the depression that followed was so difficult,” she said.
“My divorce was like a death. And then real death came. My father made me feel as if it was a noble thing to want to be an artist in the world. I wanted him to know how grateful I was for that.”
Carpenter said writing personal, heartfelt songs was a form of therapy and solace.
“Songwriting is how I make sense of things,” she said.
“It's how I make my way through the world.”
THE MIDDLE AGES
“17 makes us brave and so full of nerve/ 35 makes us pause but we're undeterred/ never say die and so we push on/ and some come to a place of reckoning/ try to fix what they find/ I arrived with the questions still beckoning/ in the back of my mind to the middle ages.” - The Middle Ages - Mary Chapin Carpenter.
"There's a comfort in that when we look back on our lives and regard the harder and more painful events of it. At the same time, you learn from what you've been through, so this song just tries to speak to the idea of going through hardships, detailing the joys and victories, as well as the things that didn't go so well. It speaks to the resilience inside of us as well.”
That resilience brought the singer to Australia last year with Texan fellow singer-songwriter Tift Merritt.
But it was not the locale of another new song Note On A Windshield - about a woman who leaves a message to a stranger on his windscreen in a reality rooted pits-top in her journey.
So did the singer ever leave a note?
“Yes, that's a true story,” she confessed.
But who was the handsome stranger and where did it take place?
“I'm not going to be that specific about it,” she said.
“It's a bit of an anecdote and metaphor for other things.”
SHOE BOXES AND LETTERS
“Here's a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine/ each one was like a diamond, now the jewel is lost to time/ my reward is in the knowing that I held it in my hands for a little while/ what else are there but the treasures in your heart?/ something tamed, something wild?” - Something Tamed Something Wild - Mary Chapin Carpenter.
The album's mood is set by nostalgia laced entrée Something Tamed, Something Wild in which the singer references a shoe box full of letters.
“It's about looking back,” Mary Chapin explained.
“The theme of this record the power of place and importance of memory. Those are very general themes but important to this record.
"It was important to me that it be the first song on the record. I think sequencing is really important. I'm old-school; I still think of the excitement of getting a full album. I still think in those terms when I'm writing, trying to create a particular environment and a thematically-related collection of songs. That's how I grew up listening to music and how I grew up receiving an artist's work."
She said the song detailed how events in her life unfolded.
"This is what I think after where I've been," she says.
"This is how it looks from here. That first song contains the most obvious themes, those being the importance of place, the power of memory, the transformative effect of loss in our lives, how it changes us, how it affects us."
Although her songs are biographical she has no plans to write an autobiography.
“I kicked it around but I'm not ready to do it, never will be,” explained the signer who had written two children's books -
Dreamland in 1996 and When Halley Came To Jackson in 1998.
“It's hard to imagine doing something like that and getting it right. I'm happy at this point of time to just stay with songwriting.”
So about a documentary to compliment her songs that have appeared in movies?
“I can't think of anything I'd rather not do,” the singer retorted.
Her favourite songs to grace movies.
“My songs have been in movies but not very often,” says the singer who scored exposure when Let Me Into Your Heart was featured in the Kevin Costner-Rene Russo movie Tin Cup .
“When it has, it has been pretty exciting. My favorite was 10,000 Miles in Fly Away Home .
The singer mainly writes solo but fondly recalls collaborating with latter day country singer Cyndi Lauper on Sally's Pigeons.
“I loved writing with Cyndi, that was a tremendous experience many years ago,” said Carpenter who was praised Lauper for recording in Nashville.
“The most important thing is to grow as an artist. It sounds like she's doing something very different to what she's done in the past.”
Many artists have covered her songs so what are her favourites?
“Tony Rice did a song of mine I wrote for him called John Wilkes Booth ,” said the singer of a song that shares theme and title with a Tom Pacheco wrote about Abraham Lincoln's assassin.
“I'm not familiar with the second song by Tom Pacheco.”
So is Mary Chapin likely to return here to promote her new album?
“I hope to return to promote it,” she said.
“It seems a long time between previous tours. I had such a wonderful time last year. I hope it's not another 10 years. I hope we get to come back soon.”
But she won't have to perform the novelty song she performed on the 1990 Country Music Awards - You Don't Know Me (I'm the Opening Act).