<b>COUNTRY STRONG:</b> Mary Chapin Carpenter has come a long way from her meteoric rise in the early ’90s. This week, she strips things down for an intimate three-piece show at the Lobero Theatre alongside Tift Merritt.

2014 has been another year of adventure for Mary Chapin Carpenter, one of music’s most popular and beloved singer-songwriters. After releasing Songs from the Movie, an ambitious project that saw her adding beautiful, complex string arrangements to some of her greatest hits, she took to the road and played those same arrangements with many of the world’s top symphony orchestras. On Friday, she kicks off a different kind of tour at the Lobero Theatre, where she will appear accompanied by just two other musicians, John Carroll (piano) and John Doyle (guitar and bouzouki).

“It’s something I’ve done many times before,” said Carpenter from her home in Virginia earlier this week, “and I love the trio format — it’s another palette.” Speaking of the way that this concert fits with what she has been doing earlier in the year, Carpenter said that “since there’s no new MCC record that I feel I have to play right now, and since I just finished touring on the orchestral arrangements of Songs from the Movie, this trio setting will allow me to be really free in my choices.”

Carpenter certainly has a wealth of material to work from. Her 13 albums add up to one of the most impressive bodies of work of any contemporary songwriter. In the years since her days as a multiple Grammy-winning country star in the 1990s, she’s grown into a more introspective artist, and the depth of her material has only increased with age. In discussing her source material, Carpenter says that inspiration can come in many forms, from something in the newspaper to “cannibalizing my own life. … I just try to stay open,” she explains, “and work hard every day.” Carpenter also acknowledges that she is in a different phase now than when she first came on the scene. “My voice is different today. It’s something I became aware of after being sick. I wanted to sing quieter, and I started changing some of the keys of the earlier songs to accommodate the fact that my voice is lower now. It’s actually been a great pleasure to discover this new way of singing. It’s just as full, but with less stress.”

Her compositions have changed as well, and the raucous zydeco of “Down at the Twist and Shout” is now as much a part of the past as the flipped bob haircut Carpenter was sporting back in ‘91. What hasn’t changed is her unerring instinct as a writer for the point that brings people together, for the idea that resonates, and for the melody that will make a song stick in your head and in your heart. Just listen to 2012’s Ashes and Roses or 2010’s The Age of Miracles to get a sense of how alive her talent remains today. These critically acclaimed releases may not have burned up the charts like Come On Come On, but they remind us that before Wilco, and before Sugarland, there was Mary Chapin Carpenter, reinventing country then just as she is transforming adult contemporary today.

Mary Chapin Carpenter plays the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Friday, October 10 at 8 p.m. with opener Tift Merritt. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets and info.


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