"I have a hill out by my house, and I'll climb up and sit in an old chair I put up there. You can see the Blue Ridge Mountains as they change colors and the grandeur of it all can be breathtaking. But at other times, it can feel so incredibly lonely."
That's singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, speaking from her home in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, about the inspiration for "The Blue Distance," one of 11 songs on her exquisitely spare and honest album "The Things That We Are Made Of." The five-time Grammy winner is scheduled to share these songs Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse.
This album finds a ruminative Carpenter, 58, paused at a rise in the road on life's journey, taking stock, keeping time. On deeply personal songs such as "What Does It Mean To Travel," "Map of My Heart" and "Something Tamed, Something Wild," Carpenter is Everywoman, looking back at hills conquered and charting challenges ahead.
It is a beautifully written and ultimately uplifting postcard, memorable not just for her Ivy League-educated sensitivity with words, but in being informed by the experiences of a transformative and trying decade for Carpenter. It began in 2007 with her emergency hospitalization for a pulmonary embolism, with blood clots in her lungs, which forced her to cancel a tour and part ways with her band, followed by a divorce and the loss of both parents.
In 2015, longtime confidante and producer John Jennings died of kidney cancer. Beginning with her 1987 debut, "Hometown Girl," Jennings worked on eight Carpenter albums and all of her Top 10 singles, including "Passionate Kisses," "Shut Up and Kiss Me" and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her."
The new acoustic-driven album is produced with lean discipline by the sure-handed Dave Cobb, best known for recent work with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. ("More than a producer, he's some kind of guru," Carpenter says.)
There is an air of solitude on "The Middle Ages," as Carpenter sings of "the dreams distilled and the dreams discarded / What made you leap or left you empty-hearted." But when she asks, "How'd you get here? / Where do you belong?" Carpenter does so not out of regret or confusion, but with resolve. She is at a place of reckoning.
"When [record label artists] were designing something for the album, I was going to send them some of the lyrics," Carpenter says. "And at one point, I had all the lyrics from every song spread out on my kitchen floor — you'd think I'd have different method for doing it by now — and they're all spread out, and I'm sitting there looking at them, and for the first time I understood that a lot of the lyrics in these songs asked questions. And I don't know the answers, but that's OK. It's OK not to know the answers."
"What Does It Mean To Travel" celebrates "the freedom of being a stranger" and being "untethered and unknown." Many of the songs on Carpenter's album seem set in a landscape filled with familiar landmarks that look alien when viewed from the new orientation of middle age.
Again, that's OK, she says. Generational change is inevitable, and even what appears to be a radical swing in temperament in the country is, in Carpenter's view, predictable and temporary.
"As I travel on the bus and look out the window at our country, I do see a coarsening that is disturbing," she says, optimistically adding, "But I do see America. It is still our country."
Carpenter's live shows lean on much of her new music, but she's also cranking things up for hits that are pure pleasure, including "Passionate Kisses" and "Shut Up and Kiss Me."
"Oh, sure, I like to change things up," she says, laughing. "But I will say that I am doing a version of 'Passionate Kisses' that is verrry dark. We're having fun with that."
Mary Chapin Carpenter will perform 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., in Fort Lauderdale. Folk-pop singer Rose Cousins will open. Tickets cost $37.50-$57.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to ParkerPlayhouse.com.