Sign up for newsletter
From the Country Standard Time Archives

Women of country offer real country

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, The Astrodome, Houston, Feb. 21, 1997

By Brian Wahlert

HOUSTON - Over the past few years, Nashville record labels have tried to kill country's new-found popularity by churning out a plethora of interchangeable male hat acts who play sound-alike new-country music.

At the same time, however, some of today's best female artists don't seem to be restrained by the commercial country industry's expectations, so their creativity and innovation shine through as they record fresh-sounding country that's light years ahead of their average male counterpart.

Given the current state of country music, the opportunity to see three of the best female country artists, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Loveless and Kathy Mattea - indeed, three of the best country artists, period, all of whom just happen to be female - together in one concert is one that shouldn't be missed by fans of real country.

Mattea opened tonight's show with an appropriate song for the occasion, "Clown in Your Rodeo." Two characteristics of Mattea immediately hit the listener early in the first song: first, her boundless energy and joy, which keeps her always dancing and grinning during her upbeat songs, and second, her powerful, soulful alto voice.

Later in the show, it became apparent that Mattea is not really so much a country singer anymore as a southern gospel singer, and this reinvention of herself as an artist suits her well. After all, she won the Grammy award for best southern gospel album a couple of years back for "Good News," and her new album, "Love Travels," picks up right where that disc left off.

Perhaps the best song on that new CD and the standout on this night was "Sending Me Angels," a very spiritual song about the power of friendship.

Mattea's voice sounded positively angelic here, and the a cappella segment really showed off the voices of her two female backup singers, Terri Wilson and Suzie Wills, who both had very prominent roles in Mattea's show and did a great job.

Another outstanding song was "Shut the Door, Keep Out the Devil," an upbeat, a cappella gospel song that gave Mattea yet another chance to shine vocally. It also featured some great male background vocals.

Even some of Mattea's classics have been reinvented to feature gospel segments. For instance, at the beginning, "Come From the Heart" was an upbeat country song featuring a beautiful mandolin part, the same as it's always been. Halfway through, the tempo dropped drastically, and with the second verse it turned into an incredible piano gospel song.

Mattea's popularity has fallen off in recent years, and her reinvention as a gospel singer will probably do little for her commercial success, but for 30 minutes tonight she captured listeners' hearts.

During the transitions from one artist to another, Amy Grant's husband Gary Chapman performed country and southern gospel music. Although a good singer and songwriter (his "Finally" went to number one for T.G. Sheppard in 1982), it seemed ironic that between his two segments, he got to play for longer than Loveless did. By the end of each of his sets, the crowd was getting antsy for the next artist.

Unfortunately, Loveless was hit hard by time constraints. She only got to perform six songs, five of which were from her latest album, "The Trouble With the Truth."

Anyone who listened to her tonight would have no idea that she's been recording for over 11 years. In fact, there was no way to tell that she's been recording for more than two years, since the oldest song she played was "I Try to Think About Elvis."

The songs she did perform showed that although she has succumbed somewhat to the pressures of commercial country music, she is still finding and recording wonderful country songs. She opened her show with "You Can Feel Bad," a great uptempo piece of country heartbreak. Her voice sounded excellent right from the start.

Although Loveless has released mostly upbeat songs as singles, once in a while she picks a really great slow song, like "A Thousand Times a Day," the highlight of tonight's set. It's a hard-core country song about not being able to put a former love in the past, complete with the great heartbreaking wordplay that used to be so popular - "Forgetting you is not that hard to do /I've done it a thousand times a day." Loveless should record more songs like this one - they play to her talents as a vocalist, if not to the desires of country radio.

After a short set by Chapman, Carpenter was introduced, and as it turns out, tonight was her 39th birthday. She seemed in good spirits, too, performing many songs off her latest CD, "A Place in the World," along with a few of her biggest hits.

She opened with "Shut Up and Kiss Me," the perfect show opener. It's fun and upbeat, and it got the crowd excited, at least what was left of the crowd by 11 p.m. when her set started.

So many singer-songwriters become country stars and then let the songwriter half of their artistic identity slide. Not Carpenter.

Her second song was a new uptempo song called "Hero in Your Own Hometown." It's a sad song about the loss of optimism and innocence that accompanies growing up and going off to find one's place in the world. "But once upon another time, it didn't matter what they said /Didn't matter if we fell behind, we'd still come out ahead," sings Carpenter, as she longs to have those days back.

Carpenter rarely writes a straight-ahead love song. Instead, the women in her songs are almost always dissatisfied for some reason. Tonight, however, she sang not one but two great new love songs. The first was "Sudden Gift of Fate," a beautiful slow song that she sang backed only by two acoustic guitars. Although Carpenter's voice sounded slightly thin on other tunes, she sounded incredible on this song.

The other love song was the upbeat "The Better to Dream of You." Again, Carpenter seemed to really get into the song and feel and believe every line she was singing.

The surprise of the night was the blues guitar solo that John Jennings played as Carpenter introduced the band. No one had any idea what song was coming next, but then the band suddenly ripped into "I Feel Lucky." Carpenter made the last verse, in which Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett are both hitting on her, really slow and sultry, so the song was even more fun to listen to than usual.

Of course, she closed her show with her women's anthem "He Thinks He'll Keep Her," featuring Mattea on background vocals. The bridge in the song is normally, "Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage," but tonight it became, "Now she's in the swimming pool, sipping lemonade." This line gave the whole song a much more optimistic feel and drew huge applause from the women in the audience.

Carpenter is one of the shining lights in today's country music scene. She writes and sings about the experiences of every woman and often, every man, too, in a voice that speaks directly to the hearts and minds of her listeners.

Tonight's concert wasn't a show in the same sense as, say, a Brooks & Dunn concert is. Instead, it was a night of wonderful country music, and the 47,976 who came to hear it were richly rewarded.