Five-time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter is still raving about the experience she had performing with Kate Campbell, Claire Holley and Caroline Herring at the Eudora Welty Centennial Concert in Jackson, Mississippi last week. Mary Chapin spoke to us from her farm--a sanctuary that she shares with her husband, six dogs, six cats, and a "menagerie" of other animals, all nestled securely up against the Blue Ridge mountains in south central Virginia.
"It is pretty hard to leave home, but it was certainly worth it for the experience I had this last week in Jackson," she said.
To hear her tell it, the act of leaving her beloved home and animals is testimony to the regard in which she holds the literary giant Welty--who is not exactly a household word. Although critically acclaimed for their respective bodies of work, Mississippi daughters Herring, Campbell and Holley are not exactly household words either, but one might argue that they, along with Welty, should be. Mary Chapin Carpenter certainly thinks so. She was more than excited to meet the other performers. She was "anticipating" doing so.
They are all so amazing. I have loved their music before I met them, I have felt a kinship with their music, and I have known Kate's music for years. To finally meet after so long, well it was just wonderful. I was trying to tell a friend of mine about how extraordinary it was to be there with them. Every single one of them. Claire has such an angelic and interesting way of writing, and Kate's writing is so masterful, and Caroline's is so literary. It was like my cup positively overflowed. Their material was extraordinary.
Something beautifully compelling happened onstage at the Belhaven College Center for the Arts. Carpenter provided the star power for the benefit performance, but more than that, she quietly and graciously deferred to the other women, learning their material, requesting their songs, and harmonizing in lovely support of the Welty tribute.
This is the definition of grace. Campbell, Herring and Holley remarked in subsequent conversations that Carpenter went out of her way to make each of them feel comfortable. The admiration was returned onstage when Carpenter said that she had not known what exactly to expect but that she felt she had "made three new friends."
Image: (l-r) Claire Holley, Caroline Herring, Kate Campbell, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jim Jennings
Had she lived to reach her one-hundredth birthday, Eudora Welty would have certainly enjoyed this gathering of new friends on a sweet-scented southern spring evening. There was a hint of ozone in the air, a harbinger of thunderstorms that would roll through Jackson later in the evening. Welty often wrote about the weather and its ability to set mood and tone. In one of her best loved books, One Writer's Beginnings, Welty described her father's "country boy's accurate knowledge of the weather and its skies." Her art was firmly rooted in family and her fascination with the grownup world of storytelling that was part and parcel of southern family living.
So I developed a strong meteorological sensibility. In years ahead when I wrote stories, atmosphere took its influential role from the start. Commotion in the weather and the inner feelings aroused by such a hovering disturbance emerged connected in dramatic form.
No shy and retiring southern belle, Welty said she tried a tornado first.
Some said they felt Welty's presence at Belhaven last week, and it is not out of the realm of possibility.
The 800-seat Belhaven Theater is a former Methodist Church, and there is something about a church that invites a visitation from the muse or a ghost. The stage was bathed in the glow of blue Fresnels that enhanced the sense of mystery and romance. Throw in the incredible artistry of four women who have the dirt, sweetness, and sweat of the south in their bones, along with songwriting abilities that summon aching memories of the pain, triumph and anguish of the South, and the profound becomes tangible--the impossible, possible.
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