A bit into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, country star Mary Chapin Carpenter wanted to find ways to stay creative, connect with fans and get some music out into the world at a time when concerts weren’t happening and albums were being put on hold.
One way she accomplished that was with her “Songs from Home” series – solo performances from her kitchen of songs from her own catalog as well as other artists, sometimes with guest appearances by her golden retriever and “producer” Angus and her cat White Kitty. Every week or so, fans could tune in online and see a fresh performance.
It was all quite casual, fun and genuine, and gave fans a bit of a window into Carpenter’s world at home.
Another project meant to provide some solace and entertainment during the pandemic, however, was not so spontaneous or modestly produced. In November of that year, Carpenter and a crew carefully followed COVID protocols and filmed an entire concert at one of Carpenter’s favorite venues, the Filene Center at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia. That show, ultimately titled One Night Lonely, was released on DVD and CD in 2021.
“I just had this idea of wanting to not only keep putting music out there in the form of a concert, but also have it be, understandably, a document of the times that we were in,” Carpenter explains. “So making it abundantly clear that there were no people in the audience [was important], and there was no need in my mind to have patter between songs. It would have been actually kind of ridiculous, I think, to be speaking to no one. But [I wanted to] film it with totally sort of world-class production and beautiful lighting and the beautiful stage that Wolf Trap has at the Filene Center.”
At 26 songs, it’s a generous set that encompasses nearly the entirety of Carpenter’s career of more than three decades. It also presents her music in a format she had yet to represent on her albums – solo acoustic. Carpenter has played solo concerts over the years and often has included solo acoustic segments in shows she performs with a band. But the Filene Center performance was a unique experience, she says.
“It felt very weird on the one hand, but also there was a comfort in doing it because that’s what I’ve been doing for so many years,” she says. “Also, I was really just determined to get through it. There were no retakes, it was all live.” Carpenter says that no songs were spliced together, that the recording is simply the full set as performed.
“And I remember, as I was playing the last song, the weight of it felt, ‘My God, I’ve been up here for two hours plus’ or whatever. It was exhausting in the moment, but at the same time, it was getting very, very cold on stage. I could see my breath on the last couple of songs and my hands were getting cold and fingers were freezing,” Carpenter says. “It was an unusual experience all the way through. But at the same time, it felt just very magical, and all of the people who were a part of the production and had worked so hard to pull it off, everyone just stayed safe and no one got sick. That was really gratifying.”
The solo acoustic performances on One Night Lonely allow the melodicism of Carpenter’s songs to shine and put an even bigger spotlight on her thoughtful lyrics as well as her underappreciated skills as a guitarist. The set leans decidedly toward her more serious and meditative material. Playful hits like “Shut Up and Kiss Me,” “Down at the Twist and Shout” and “Passionate Kisses” aren’t included, and the lightest song is arguably “I Take My Chances,” a breezy song with some serious thoughts about Carpenter’s approach to life.
A five-time Grammy winner who has sold a combined 12 million albums, Carpenter, 64, debuted on the national scene with her 1987 album Hometown Girl. Early on, Columbia Records marketed Carpenter as a country artist, even though her music also had elements of folk, rock and pop.
But the plan worked, and Carpenter’s third album, 1990’s Shooting Straight in the Dark, gave her a breakthrough country hit with “Down at the Twist and Shout.” Carpenter became a major star with her follow-up album, Come On Come On, which spawned four top 10 country hits – “Passionate Kisses” (a Lucinda Williams song), “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “I Take My Chances” – on its way to going quadruple platinum. Carpenter’s next album, Stones in the Road, was another hit and featured her first chart-topping country single, “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Since then, Carpenter has maintained the quality of her songwriting while crafting a more ballad-oriented sound on her eight subsequent studio albums. The hit singles haven’t hit quite as well as they did in the ‘90s, but Carpenter remains a popular concert draw.
The Dirt and the Stars, Carpenter’s most recent studio album, is well represented on One Night Lonely, as she performs the songs “All Broken Hearts Break Differently,” “Traveler’s Prayer,” the title cut and “Farther Along and Further In.” The latter song opens The Dirt and the Stars and sets the tone for the 2020 album.
“That song in particular, it was important to me to have it open the record because I do think it sort of states a theme that runs throughout the record, which is just the wisdom that comes with growing older and everything that goes into that,” Carpenter says.
Carpenter traveled to Bath, England, and Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios to record The Dirt and the Stars. She also recorded her 2018 album, Sometimes Just the Sky, there.
“Everything about it is magical and world class, and just a unique place to be creative,” she says of the facility.
Per usual, Carpenter didn’t share her songs with the musicians who played on the album until it was time to go to work at the studio. This fosters a collaborative environment for the proceedings, she says.
“I have a way of doing it, which is I play the song for everyone just by myself,” Carpenter says. “An arrangement sort of evolves and reveals itself…Everybody brings their own ideas to it, and in the end, it just kind of comes together.”
This summer’s extensive tour – which includes a stop at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall on July 19 – will give Carpenter her first opportunity to showcase songs from The Dirt and the Stars in a full-band setting. She was set to tour in 2021 with Shawn Colvin before a shoulder injury forced her to drop out.
Carpenter thinks she’s recovered but notes there’s only one way to know for sure.
“It’s kind of hard to know until you’re right in the middle of it, you know, playing every night and sort of testing it that way,” Carpenter says. “I spent the past year doing physical therapy and trying to build my strength up in my arms, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Exactly what songs fans will hear on a given night will vary, as Carpenter plans to change up her set list from show to show.
“We’ll move the pieces around like a chess board and fiddle with it, you know, for nearly every night. I’m sort of changing things around,” she says. “There’s just not enough time [in a show] to play all of the songs I want to play. I guess that at this point in my life, it’s something to be happy about instead of feeling like it’s a detriment.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter will perform at 8 p.m. July 19 at Memorial Hall, 1225 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. Emily Barker will open the show. Info: memorialhallotr.com.