August 8, 2013 | by Keith Loria
‘Ashes’ to beauty
Mary Chapin Carpenter, music, gay news, Washington Blade

Mary Chapin Carpenter says summer wouldn’t feel right for her without a Wolf Trap performance. (Photo courtesy Wolf Trap)

Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin
With BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet
Saturday
8 p.m.
Wolf Trap
Filene Center
1551 Trap Road
Vienna, VA
$42 house, $25 lawn
wolftrap.org

After graduating from Brown University in 1981 with a degree in American Civilization, Mary Chapin Carpenter did something her fellow graduates may have thought a little peculiar — she started hitting small music clubs and pubs in the D.C. area, playing acoustic sets at such venues as Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café and Food for Thought.

“I was writing songs as a kid,” Carpenter says. “I played my Mom’s bass ukulele and graduated to her gut-string guitar. It was just something I loved to do. It wasn’t until I was playing local clubs in D.C. that I got the courage to play some of my own music. Until then, I was fervent about playing other people’s things. I came late to the idea that I could take [songwriting] somewhere. Writing was important to me, but it wasn’t something I imagined making a living from.”

Music, at the time, was just a hobby for her, and she always felt she would eventually have to stop passing the hat around and get a real job. Not long after making something of a name for herself around the area, she met guitarist John Jennings and her life would change forever. Jennings would convince Carpenter to take music seriously and become her producer and long-time collaborator.

By the early ’90s, thanks to Carpenter’s distinctive blend of folk and country, she became a radio staple. Songs such as “Never Had it So Good,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Feel Lucky” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me” became hits, and she took home five Grammy Awards and was named Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 1992 and 1993. Over the years, she has recorded 12 albums that have sold more than 13 million units.

Her latest album, “Ashes and Roses,” reflects some of the trials and tribulations the singer has gone through over the past few years, including her divorce and the death of her father. She describes her writing as a journey, what she saw, felt and experienced along the way.

“They say that the worst, the most traumatic, things that people can go through in their lives are a divorce, the loss of a parent and serious illness,” she says. “All of those things have happened to me in the last few years. So these are the songs that came about when I started to write. To try and push them away or write about something else, did not seem possible. Songwriting is what I do. This is how I make sense of things, it’s how I seek connection and make my way through the world.”

On Saturday, Carpenter will team up with Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin (of “Sunny Came Home” fame) for a concert at Wolf Trap. These longtime friends share the stage as an intimate duo, performing material spanning their vast catalogs as well as some of their favorite songs.

“Shawn and I have been touring for the last year together and our friendship goes back nearly 30 years,” Carpenter says. “And with that comes a familiarity and mutual love of songs by one another and by other artists that we have grown up loving. So there will be stories, songs, songs by others, duets, solos — lots of things.”

Being back in the D.C. area means a lot to Carpenter, who has become a staple at Wolf Trap over the years.

“It always feels like my ‘hometown’ show … there is nothing better than standing on that stage on a beautiful summer evening, playing music for friends, family and lovely people who make you feel so embraced,” Carpenter says. “We have played there for so many years now, it always feels like a homecoming. It doesn’t feel like summer if there isn’t a Wolf Trap play.”

Carpenter has never been shy about expressing her opinions on things, from promoting the removal of landmines to supporting gay rights. When country singer Chely Wright came out in 2010, Carpenter was one of the few fellow singers to publicly support her, which she says was important to do for her friend.

While Carpenter appreciates that she has a strong LGBT following, she makes no distinctions regarding her audience and plays for everyone.

“When I look out into the audience and see the faces of people, I feel honored and privileged that they have chosen to spend their dollars on a ticket to see me and their time to connect with what I have to say in my music,” she says. “So the audience is one big wonderful collective of lives and I am thrilled they are out there.”

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