Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Mary Chapin Carpenter returned to Nashville on Friday, July 16, to play before a near-capacity crowd at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The concert, originally scheduled to take place at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, faced a change of venue because of damage the Symphony Center sustained in the Nashville flood this past May. But what elegance TPAC's Jackson Hall may lack compared to the much newer and more ornate Symphony hall was more than made up for by the warm, lovely voice of this now-veteran performer who dazzled with a nearly two-hour set of longtime favorites and newer material.

Backed by a five-piece band and switching between electric and acoustic guitar throughout the show, Mary Chapin, who now makes her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, began rather fittingly with 'We Traveled So Far, the tender opening track on her latest album, 'The Age of Miracles.' She followed with another stellar track from the album, the upbeat 'I Put My Ring Back On.' The familiar opening guitar riff of the 1993 Top 5 hit, 'Passionate Kisses,' grabbed the crowd immediately, after which the singer revealed that she and her band had rushed to the theater from another Music City landmark, the Ryman Auditorium, where they played two songs on the Grand Ole Opry ('I Feel Lucky' and from her latest album, 'The Way I Feel').

"It was about four-and-a-half minutes of pure fun," she said of the experience, adding, "Marty Stuart is just the greatest guy; everybody down there is so fantastic. What a day, I'll never forget it."

Mary Chapin's current tour not only reintroduces her much-loved country hits and more recent yet less familiar (and, arguably, more thematically potent) material to audiences, the trek is giving her the chance to play songs from the critically lauded 2007 album, 'The Calling,' since, as she told the audience, "life interrupted" just as that tour was to get underway.

She offered no details of the pulmonary embolism that disrupted her life and career at the time, but instead introduced the title track from 'The Calling' by saying that the tune "speaks to my belief that we're all born with a purpose and it's really up to us to be alert enough when it taps us on the shoulder, if it hasn't found us somehow before that ... and to be courageous, brave, or spontaneous enough to follow it wherever it leads us." She offered as examples of people who have done just that, her youngest sister, an "elite athlete," who runs 100-mile races and is also a teacher, and a friend who builds clean-water projects in Guatemala. She also told the story of current U.S. poet laureate W.S. Merwin, who, "at 82, has another new gig," adding wryly, "so you have all these great, disparate examples -- and then there are people like Sarah Palin," a comment which earned the biggest laugh (and heartiest non-music-related applause) of the night.

While the remainder of the show included newer songs such as the gorgeous 'Mrs. Hemingway,' reflecting Mary Chapin's thoughts on the first wife of author Ernest Hemingway, and album favorites such as 'Stones in the Road' and 'Halley Came to Jackson,' the latter part of the evening concentrated on the hits that earned the singer numerous Grammys, CMAs and other awards throughout the 1990s. Vibrant renditions of 'Shut Up and Kiss Me,' 'Down at the Twist and Shout,' 'He Thinks He'll Keep Her' and the irresistible 'I Feel Lucky' were among the highlights.

She closed with a driving version of 'The Hard Way,' but for her Nashville fans, a couple of hours with the music of Mary Chapin Carpenter was the easy -- and the only -- way to spend a night in Music City.

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