“If we were not in a pandemic, we would have been playing at Wolf Trap the day after tomorrow,” Mary Chapin Carpenter told me in late August 2020, during the initial wave of the COVID pandemic.
“I still have a Filofax — that’s how I keep my schedule. And I went through with Wite-Out and whited out every gig that was canceled, but I couldn’t bring myself to white out Wolf Trap, because I knew that when I got to the month of August, I would want to know, ‘What was that date that we were supposed to be there?’ Because it means so much to me to play Wolf Trap.”
Three years later, society has returned to a modicum of normalcy that, in 2020, had all but vanished. Carpenter, who will appear at Wolf Trap on Saturday, Aug. 26, as part of an ongoing tour, is ecstatic to be back in a venue that has always meant the world to her.
“My love for Wolf Trap is informed by the first experiences I had as a teenager going to Wolf Trap,” the 65-year-old artist, whose family lived in the D.C. area in the mid-seventies, said to me during a phone call earlier this week.
“I think my favorite was when I went to see Aaron Copland conduct his work ‘Appalachian Spring.’ It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed. And lying on a blanket on that big hill under the stars, with my eyes closed, listening to the composer of ‘Appalachian Spring’ conduct the National Symphony — I don’t think I realized at the time how fortunate I was to have that experience. But I certainly know it now, and it’s one of those moments in your life you just never forget.
“And I can guarantee you,” she continues, “when I was lying with my eyes closed, listening to that on the hill, I never would have thought in a million years that I might eventually stand on that stage and present my own music. Those are the magic things that happen in life.”
Saturday’s concert is Carpenter’s second year back at the venue — last year, she performed with folk legend Emmylou Harris, who stunned with a breathtaking 90-minute opening set. This year’s opener is Dawes, a Los Angeles-based folk-rock group that combines wistful poetics with irrepressible, earworm melodies, echoing Carpenter’s own long-standing approach to songwriting.
Appearing before a full audience, after the solitude of the pandemic, has been, Carpenter says, “overwhelming.”
“I would say the most overwhelming feeling — and I know you can understand this — was just one of gratitude,” she says. “Just to feel that at least even for a moment, that perhaps it was permissible to feel like life made sense again. We were all together again in a space after having to stay apart for so long…. Live music with an audience is something that there will never be a substitute for. So it just felt like almost a spiritual experience just to be together that way after so long of being apart.”
During the pandemic, Carpenter recorded an album unique for the times. After weeks of livestreaming songs from her Virginia home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, for a makeshift online series she called “Songs from Home,” the artist and Wolf Trap hatched a plan to have her play a two-hour set, sans band, in the vast, vacant Filene Center.
Released in 2021, One Night Lonely is a remarkable, profoundly moving work, featuring several of Carpenter’s most cherished hits — everything from “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances,” and “The Hard Way” to tender, poignant renditions of recent fare, including the transcendent “Sometimes Just the Sky.”
The album is steeped in a rare and wondrous intimacy, with Carpenter’s velvety contralto and deft, solo acoustic guitar work evoking her early years of playing gigs in D.C. at Dupont Circle’s Food for Thought and Cleveland Park’s Gallagher’s Pub before skyrocketing into national success as a Grammy-winning musician.
“It was very deliberate on my part not to talk between songs because there was no one to address in front of me,” she says of making One Night Lonely. “It would’ve felt kind of hokey to me to do that because there was no one there. I wanted it to be an authentic document of the time that we were in, and not try to portray it as anything other than that.
“There’s a reason why I called it One Night Lonely — it was lonely up there. I don’t think I’d played a solo show in all of the years that I’ve been playing music, straight through, no retakes, nothing. By the time I got to the very end of the performance, I remember feeling weak in the knees. Making it felt like a victory — to be able to pull something like that off in the midst of such terrible isolation and loss and pain and fear for so many people.”
Carpenter’s finest songs — and there are many — have a poetic resonance that gently tugs at the heart, and her delivery, especially on later albums, is both all-encompassing and transporting. Her fans are no strangers to her liberal political leanings, and she approaches cultural issues in her songs with frankness, honesty, and irony. She feels artists don’t necessarily have a responsibility to espouse viewpoints in their work, but for her, it comes with the territory.
“If you’re the songwriter, you have perhaps one kind of answer, and if you’re a listener, you have another,” she says. “As we all know, there are plenty of people out there who are completely allergic to the idea that an artist of any kind, particularly contemporary music artists, would use their so-called fame or platform to espouse a political position or a cause — that’s just another way of saying the people who would say, ‘Shut up and sing.’ So it depends on if you’re that kind of person and you don’t believe that people in the arts should use their art to advocate for something. I’m not one of those people.
“I’ve never been an artist that felt like I had to stay away from certain topics or positions,” she continues. “Being an artist is one thing, but to be able to have enough of a platform to write about anything I want, and to say what I believe, is a privilege.”
She acknowledges that the times we find ourselves in make it difficult to adequately convey a message that can move those stubbornly opposed to rational thought.
“It’s such a difficult time we’re in — and every day the yelling gets louder and the vitriol gets louder and the tragedies get more tragic,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I need to put myself on a news diet because I get so depressed by the latest salvo in the culture war or the latest despicable behavior that people show towards one another — especially [towards] people who are the more voiceless and the neediest among us. They just become even quieter and needier and it’s just heartbreaking.”
Carpenter is working on a new record but won’t yet reveal a release date. “I’ve been writing a new record for quite some time now,” she says. “I finally finished a song a few weeks ago that had been kind of hovering for a few years and I’ve been playing it for the audiences out here in the middle of the show as a way of ‘beta testing’ it. It’s been really fun to play a new song that no one’s heard before.”
She never tires of playing any of her vast repertoire, and notes that “The Hard Way,” the indelible 1993 single that features unforgettable supporting vocals from The Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin, is the one song that makes it into every show without fail.
“That song sort of espouses my philosophy of life,” she says, warmly. “Especially the last verse. I want to make sure that I’m always stating what I believe.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter appears Saturday, Aug. 26, 2023, at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center. Dawes opens. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit www.wolftrap.org.
Her current tour continues through Oct. 24, with stops in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania. For tour dates and tickets, visit www.marychapincarpenter.com/tour.
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