Mary Chapin Carpenter
Singer, songwriter and guitarist
Born: February 21, 1958, in Princeton, New Jersey
Lives in: Afton, Virginia
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Performing Arts
Although she never wanted to be identified with a genre, Mary Chapin Carpenter became one of the biggest stars in country music, winning four consecutive Grammy Awards for Best Female Country Vocal Performance from 1992 to 1995. Still, she has stuck to her guns throughout her career, eschewing the big hair and sequins of country stardom, while charming critics and audiences with her eloquent, highly personal and socially conscious body of work.
Born and raised in Princeton, Carpenter moved with her parents to Washington, D.C., when she was 16. She plunged into the local folk music scene while still in high school, then left to attend Brown University. After graduation, she returned to the D.C. area and began performing her original songs alongside pop covers, sometimes in partnership with guitarist John Jennings.
In 1987, Columbia Records signed Carpenter and released her first folksy album, “Hometown Girl.” Two singles from her second album, “Never Had It So Good” and “Quittin’ Time,” reached the top 10 on the country charts, convincing Columbia to focus Carpenter’s output on the country market. The 1990 album “Shooting Straight in the Dark” shot Carpenter into the country stratosphere, yielding the No. 2 country hit “Down at the Twist and Shout.”
Carpenter’s commercial peak followed. Her 1992 album, “Come On Come On,” reached No. 6 on the country albums chart, fueled by four top-10 country singles. Two years later, the album “Stones in the Road” went all the way to No. 1 on the country chart and ultimately sold more than 5 million copies.
Several of Carpenter’s most popular songs from the period came from a slyly feminist point of view. “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” mocks traditional marital roles; “I Feel Lucky” and “Shut Up and Kiss Me” (her only No. 1 single) portray confident women in control of their relationships.
In time, Carpenter moved back to her introspective, folksy roots and began looking at relationships from a more mature vantage point. Departing Columbia, she continued releasing critically acclaimed albums on independent labels for her loyal following. Carpenter’s most recent album, “The Dirt and the Stars,” released in 1990, is a meditation on life’s experiences and her connections to the places along the way, including Princeton.
Of Princeton she told New Jersey Monthly, “Your first memories of a place and your first sense of belonging to somewhere—those are very powerful feelings, and I don’t think you ever grow out of them.”