USED TO BE, IDENTIFYING A FEMALE country singer was as easy as spottin’ the twang, the beehive and the man she was sure to be standin’ by. But these days, it can be harder to tell the rubes from the rockers. Take the happy case of Mary-Chapin Carpenter, 34, a Yankee-bred Ivy Leaguer who dresses like a folkie and talks without a drop of Dixie in her voice. Look around her one-bedroom bachelorette pad in northern Virginia and you will find no sequins in the closet, no grits on the stove. The only evidence of the occupant’s calling is a 1992 Grammy perched atop a bookcase. Sure enough, it’s inscribed BEST COUNTRY VOCAL PERFORMANCE, FEMALE.
In fact, Carpenter earned that award for her Cajun-cooked rockabilly hit, “Down at the Twist and Shout,” a song that’s a lot more rock than billy. And this summer her gold fourth album, Come On Come On, entered Billboard’s country chart then jumped into the pop Top 200 faster than you could say crossover. “The old stereotypes just don’t apply anymore,” says Carpenter. “Nowadays it has less to do with what you look like than what you’re saying and how you say it.”
Instead of ditties about diesels and d-i-v-o-r-c-e, Carpenter’s listeners are more likely to hear a finely crafted tune of exuberant introspection (“I Feel Lucky”) or a bemused somebody-done-somebody-wrong song in which the somebody is not a would-be Mr. Right but a chauvinist fool (“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”).
Truth is, Carpenter’s roots lie far from Southern soil. The third of four sisters, she was born in Princeton, N.J., where her mother, Bowie, worked at a private school, and her father, Chapin, was a LIFE magazine executive. The house was filled with music, all twang-free. “Mom loves opera, Dad loves jazz, my sisters had all the groovy albums and all the Broadway show albums,” Carpenter says. “I liked what they liked.”
In 1969 her father was assigned to LIFE’s Asian edition, and the family packed off to Japan; Mary-Chapin took with her the old gut-string Goya of Mom’s that she had been strumming since second grade. When the clan returned after two years and later settled in Washington, D.C., Carpenter headed for Connecticut’s preppy Taft School, then to Brown University.
At college she played in a campus coffeehouse, and after her 1981 graduation (with a B.A. in American civilization), she moved back to Washington and began playing gigs at local clubs. Painfully sell-conscious at first, “She was very quiet and couldn’t hardly look at an audience,” recalls Gary Oelze, owner of the Birchmere club in Alexandria, Va. Says D.C. radio host Lee Michael Demsey, a longtime Carpenter booster: “She was so shy. She would do other people’s songs. Gradually she got up enough confidence to mix in a few of her own.”
Earning only $40 a night onstage, Carpenter took a day job as an administrative assistant with a Washington-based philanthropic group in 1983. (“I was kind of relieved to get health insurance,” she says.) Signed by CBS Records in 1987—on the basis of a homemade tape she had put together with her friend and current coproducer, John Jennings, and sold at shows—Carpenter released her debut album, Hometown Girl, the same year. But she also kept her job for two more years and toured—by car—only when she could get the time off. “It never ceased to crack me up when we pulled in somewhere and they’d say, ‘Where’s your bus?’ People think, ‘Oh, you got signed to a major label. You must be on easy street.’ ”
In 1990, Carpenter won the Academy of Country Music award for Top New Female Vocalist. With seven Top 10 country hits to her credit now, plus that Grammy on the bookcase, she finally got her own bus (leased), a crack band of backup players and a crew of five.
And while there are no plans for a Music Row mansion, there are hints of a bigger home someday. In January older sister Mackenzie gave birth to twins, and last June younger sister Sophie had her first child as well. “There’s a part of me that wants a family,” says Carpenter. “When I saw my sisters’ babies, we were all so happy, and yet I felt so melancholy too. I can’t help but wonder—can make those sacrifices?”
One reason may be her recent romantic troubles with a Virginia piano tuner and concert stage production coordinator with whom she’s been trying to have a relationship during the past two years of near nonstop touring. “I’m trying to figure out how to be part of this relationship, and he’s trying to work out the sacrifices he needs to make,” she says. “It’s very, very hard.”
If that has the makings of a country lament, Carpenter will no doubt make the best of it. And maybe she already has. As she sings in her current hit single, “I Feel Lucky”: “No tropical depression’s gonna steal my sun away, I feel lucky today.”
MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, D.C.