Saving Grace

The mould-breaking Nashville singer-songwriter gets a marvellous best-of

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It’s easy to forget that, before the current alt.country boom opened doors for a new generation of female singer-songwriters, the position of women in country music was largely confined to decorative interpretation of the cliched hokum cranked out by Nashville’s songwriting production line. Songwriting, it seemed, was man’s work, so while the likes of Lyle Lovett and Randy Travis got to record their own material, few women were afforded similar latitude.

Carpenter was the performer who broke that particular mould. For several years, she was virtually the only female country singer who wrote her own songs?the result, perhaps, of her origins in the soft-left folk music scene of the American north-east rather than the conservative southern attitudes that dominated mainstream country music. Her literate, liberal-minded songs were greedily snapped up by women such as Joan Baez, who were otherwise starved of material with such an emotionally articulate female viewpoint. But the best interpreter of her songs has always been Carpenter herself, signalling with subtle nuances of inflection their varieties of depth and humour.

The largest part of this compilation comes from 1992’s Come On, Come On, the album that broke her to a mainstream audience through Grammy-winning country hits like (Lucinda Williams’) “Passionate Kisses”, the wry “I Feel Lucky” and especially the anthemic instant classic “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, about an ignored wife pining for affection. Her signature piece, however, is probably the title track of 1994’s Stones In The Road, one of several songs here dealing perceptively with the passage from youth to maturity. It’s a theme she returned to in “The Long Way Home” from her most recent album, 2001’s Time*Sex*Love, a more jaundiced look back at the careerist era “when everybody had to go, had to be, had to get somewhere” but in the process forgot where they came from, and why they were going anywhere in the first place. Not so Carpenter herself, whose work profits from a more considered, ruminative process. As she observes here, in a line that could serve as her own motto, it’s “accidents and inspiration [that] lead you to your destination”.

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