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Voices carry
Patty Griffin and Mary Chapin Carpenter

Like most singer-songwriters, Patty Griffin and Mary Chapin Carpenter sing, play guitar, and write songs that limn the bittersweet stretches of love and life. Last fall, both shared the stage on an American tour with Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams, performing their own songs and joining in on one anotherís. And neither much enjoys talking about the stylistic and ideological divisions that course through current roots music. "Iím not sure what youíre asking me," Carpenter says when I meet up with her in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel the morning before she plays an intimate acoustic night at SoHoís Housing Works Used Book Cafe. "I just wanna talk about my record!" Griffin exclaims when I reach her over the phone at her home in Austin.

Fair enough, because both women have new albums ó Carpenterís Between Here and Gone (Sony Nashville) and Griffinís Impossible Dream (Vanguard) ó that are worth talking about. Each disc confronts the social complexities of wartime, the quiet changes that ripple through the fabric of relationships and communities rather than the broad-stroke transformations better left to artists like those on Fat Wreck Chordsí new Rock Against Bush compilation. In Carpenterís "Grand Central Station," sheís cleaning up at Ground Zero after September 11; "I ainít no hero, mister, just a working man," she sings over a rolling acoustic-guitar figure. That worker is trying to shepherd people over to Grand Central, where they can catch a train home. On paper, the song may look a little hoky, but on disc ó or better, on stage ó it marries folk simplicity to country sheen in the way Carpenterís been doing since late í80s. She undersings the number, letting the emotion speak for itself.

Griffinís "Cold as It Gets" is a similarly stripped-down acoustic ballad. "Thereís a million sad stories on the side of the road," she sings. "Strange how we all just got used to the blood." Unlike Carpenterís voice, Griffinís always sounds as if it were on the verge of being overwhelmed by feeling, but it never quite crosses over into release. "Cold as It Gets" keeps building and building until she sings, "I live only to see you live to regret everything that youíve done." Then itís over.

Both Griffin and Carpenter have scraped against mainstream success. After working the Boston club circuit in the mid í90s, Griffin scored a deal with A&M, who wanted her to connect with undergraduate Tori Amos fans. Although that never really happened, sheís become a popular songwriter among higher-profile country types; Martina McBride, the Dixie Chicks, and Reba McEntire have all covered her work. Carpenter has a long history of semi-renown; her 1992 version of Lucinda Williamsís "Passionate Kisses," probably her biggest hit, remains a chiming country-pop classic. Yet if neither woman has broken through, neither slots easily into an alterna-country scene thatís often defined by Puritanism.

"I just like to write and I like to sing," Griffin says plainly. "I drank the water in Old Town, Maine, for 19 years, and it made me realize thereís certain things in me that are just unique to me. If Iím starting to think about alterna-country and Nashville, itís really not me; itís me having spent too much time around the marketing people, you know? Itís this other voice thatís not really about what I do."

"The only sense I know how to make of it is when I got signed to a major label, it was like a happy accident," Carpenter says. "I was able to find a niche for myself, and it wasnít right away, but I sort of found it. And for a while there, I had a presence on commercial country radio, and then it slowly fell away. But Iíve somehow been able to keep making records and keep touring. Iíve had a career, and thatís great."

Patty Griffin performs this Sunday, May 9, at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston; call (617) 747-2261. Mary Chapin Carpenter performs on Sunday May 23 at North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road in Beverly; call (978) 232-7200.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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