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Don't Look Back 

Mary Chapin Carpenter sets sail into uncharted waters

Mary Chapin Carpenter's ready. She's got the car and the engine running, inviting you to slam the door 'til the hinges fly, light a match and burn some bridges, and come dance with her on a narrow ledge that's way too high.

If you needed one word to capture her new album Time* Sex* Love*, the word might well be ready, full of connotations of time, opportunity, daring and action. The album's opening track, "Whenever You're Ready," invites the listener to take things a little too far. "Simple Life" admonishes us to get out of reverse, stop making lists of all the things we haven't done yet and enjoy the view, be glad we made it this far. "Maybe World" casts off backward glances and should-haves, relishing the uncertainty that leaves the famous road still untaken. And the final track, "Late for Your Life" addresses the begging question to those driving the twin steeds of ceaseless searching and endless procrastination: "Why would you wait and be late for your life?"

"There are a lot of songs about the passage of time and wanting to be present as much as possible in your life, wanting to not waste a minute, wanting to acknowledge what is good," Carpenter told the Independent in a recent conversation. "Maybe it's the things that you haven't even done yet that are the things that are going to matter the most in the end," she said of "Late for Your Life." "We can sit around and say, 'If I could just quit my job or leave the rat race and go out into the country...' You can make those physical changes, but in the end it doesn't really matter where you are. You may not find that perfect place to escape to, but you have to find your sense of self, and you can't put that off."

Among the early inspirations for the album was a desire to "do something different." Carpenter had come out of a short, unpleasant management situation that had left her drained from too much commercial pressure surrounding her last studio album. When it came time to record Time* Sex* Love* last fall, Carpenter left her longtime Springfield, Va. recording studio and set out across the water to Beatles producer George Martin's Air Studios in London. "That was one of the opportunities that came my way to do something different, and I wanted to take it."

Though Martin wasn't formally involved in the album, he stopped in from time to time and made an impression on Carpenter and her band. It may be a stretch to think of the album as Beatle-esque, but the strings on "Slave to the Beauty," the fab-pop groove of "Maybe World," and Duke Levine's electric sitar on "In the Name of Love" pay homage to the studio magic of Martin's heyday.

Carpenter is at her best with upbeat, bright, empowering songs like "The Long Way Home," an anthem to remember "what got you there." Carpenter intoxicates her listeners with the charge to "Tell your kid a story, hold your lover tight/Make a joyful noise, swim naked at night/Read a poem a day, call in well sometimes and/Laugh when they believe it." Similarly, "This Is Me Leaving You" is a song that relies on the calm, reasoned internal voice to make mature decisions.

"It's an album for grown-ups," Carpenter mused. "Maybe when you're a 'grown-up' you are listening more to your internal voice as opposed to responding to everything that's around you. This is a collection of music that I wouldn't have been able to come up with when I was 30. Thirteen years on, I feel like these are the things that are important to me, and this reflects my heart and my soul."

Though Carpenter has had tremendous success over the years in the world of country music, she laughs at the notion that she's still a fixture in that genre. Grown-up songs of heart and soul aren't necessarily tailor-made for modern country stations. "Nowadays, I don't really get a whole lot of airplay on country radio, except for some older songs. I feel somewhat like an artist without a format. If they're not playing what you're putting out there, what does that make you? I just sort of feel somewhat like a ship without a port."

Carpenter connects with her audience by capturing the quality of a favorite novelist, the one who curls up next to you like a lover every night from solstice to solstice, always dependable, always transformative, always brightening and enlightening on everything from long romantic affairs to a favorite old shirt and all its memories.

"The exploration of the world and your life through art, seeing exhibits, reading poetry, reading books, being engrossed in novels, that sort of thing, that's a part of my life that is understandably very important to me," she explained. "It's my imagination going crazy. It's wonderful. And it exposes you to other words and other people. I sound like a poster child for literacy, but that's what I think.

"When I connect with a piece of music or art," she continued, "it's because I have some sort of moment of recognition, like 'Ah, that resonates with me, that's something I've felt, or that's something I relate to.' We are all so much a part of the same thing, we all go through the same struggles and emotions, so we would recognize that amongst each other."

That keen sense of resonance emerges in one of the album's most tender songs, "Alone But Not Lonely," a revealing look at people whose hearts and minds remain a locked mystery to Carpenter. "There's this vulnerability that you feel when you acknowledge your need for a person or a companion," she explained. "I was sort of ruminating on these individuals that I knew who don't seem vulnerable; they don't seem to need the way I was needing. And it just made me feel envious."

Though her shows are carefully polished and her band is as tight as they come, she is irresistibly drawn to uncharted waters. Her informal workshops with friends like Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris have been among the most anticipated features of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and this year she took things a step further with an impromptu group of women musicians including Sally Truit, Sally Van Metre, Alison Brown, and Alison Krause in an alter-ego group called The Boomchicks. She laughs long and loud at the memory of that set, in particular the guest appearance of four "very seductive women": Peter Rowan, Mike Marshall, Darol Anger and Chris Thiele. "That was so much fun," she says, beaming audibly. "I hope we get to make it an annual thing."

Colorado holds a special place for Carpenter, in large part due to the confidence she's developed over ten years at Telluride. "I've never played in front of such an audience that's just so welcoming of everything that's put in front of it. It's very frightening to get up there. There's so much good music, and you get up there and you're just hoping you'll do OK. Then you realize that they're saying to you, 'Just do what you do. We love it all.' That's what's so cool about that festival."

Call it her home away from home, perhaps. But as long as the winds of inspiration fill the sails of her songs, she will always find safe harbor inviting her to burn her bridges and tack back toward Colorado.

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