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Tale of Two Women

Wynonna and Mary Chapin Carpenter charmed crowds at Mountain Winery and Villa Montalvo

By Sarah Quelland

WOMEN ARE TAKING COUNTRY MUSIC by its traditional roots and shaking it up a bit with hip, young crossover female entertainers like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and the Dixie Chicks jumping into the mainstream. As the tides shift, members of country's old guard are taking their own careers in new directions.

A solo Wynonna show June 17 at the Mountain Winery and Mary Chapin Carpenter's performance June 23 at Villa Montalvo's Garden Theatre indicate that they are exploring new territory within the ever-broadening country genre.

Where Wynonna's buoyant songs speak of faith and joy, Carpenter's intelligent lyrics spin tales of heartache and loss. And while for her show the flashy Wynonna wrapped herself in Appalachian glamour with an embroidered flower shawl and a bright red flower nestled behind her ear, Carpenter stepped onstage wearing faded blue jeans and a simple chartreuse blouse.

Despite their contrasting appearances and musical styles, both are strong, rebellious, witty women. Their bold songs reflect a depth of character that's being lost in country's shift toward catchy pop-oriented material.

Wynonna is still best known for songs she performed with her mother as the Judds, but at the Winery she stuck to her solo material. The songs from her latest album, New Day Dawning, offer soulful R&B with gospel tendencies and spiritual overtones, and her brassy vocals sound more like Patty LaBelle than Patsy Cline.

Wynonna has a great sense of humor onstage, delivering sarcastic wink-and-nod comments and teasing her audience. Yelling up to a man in the bleacher seats who was using binoculars to get a better view, she quipped, "Honey! It's not perfect, but it's all real."

Before launching into "Help Me," a song she covered on her new album, she called Joni Mitchell her "Shero." Other material included the spiritual numbers "I Can't Wait to Meet You" and Let's Make a Baby King," and a song from the Touched by an Angel soundtrack titled "Testify to Love." She also performed a moving rendition of the traditional hymn "How Great Thou Art."

Repeatedly commenting on the inebriated state of the crowd (it was the Winery after all), during the encore, "No One Else On Earth," Wynonna chided the audience: "Y'all are drunk! That ain't singing." Then she relented, saying," I'm going to give you another chance. I want the mountains to echo."

Mary Chapin Carpenter Folky Vulnerability

WHILE WYNONNA has a larger-than-life personality and a tremendous voice that hits you like a freight train, the folkier Carpenter expresses a wonderful vulnerability and sings with real conviction. There's a great deal of sadness in her songs that carries through the new unreleased material she shared with the crowd at the intimate Garden Theatre.

Backed by John Jennings on acoustic bass and baritone guitar, Duke Levine on electric guitar and mandolin, and the sizzling Jon Carroll on keyboard and piano, Carpenter took center stage with her own guitar.

Her set included the fiery Cajun dance number "Down at the Twist and Shout," the defiant anthem "I Take My Chances" and a swampy honky-tonk cover of Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," as well as no-nonsense classics "Passionate Kisses," "The Hard Way" and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her."

Carpenter shared her newfound appreciation for the Backstreet Boys (joking that their "pop ear candy" was giving her a "cavity in my head") before singing a new song titled "The Lovin' Thing" which she said she was pitching to the boy group. "It would be the coolest thing ever," she marveled, "but so bizarre too."

While Carpenter's rowdy songs really cut loose, it's her haunting voice and the profound lyrics in her slower material that make her such a treasure. She stood in the spotlight for a rare moment without her guitar to sing a positively mesmerizing rendition of "Only a Dream."

"Swept Away," a delicate new song, riveted the crowd with lines like "I am falling slowly backwards right into your famous last words." The song was written after she ran into an old lover years after he broke her heart. As Carpenter explained, "My initial feeling was to clutch my throat and go 'Oh shit' [but] instead of going into a spasm, I was overcome with joy." She prefaced the song by saying, "Time can do wondrous things when you give it a chance."

But while usually thoughtful, Carpenter's not always serious. Describing it as "a new song for a new century," a number called "The Getting There" pokes fun at the workaholic direction America is taking. Talking about "power suits" and "IPOs" and a "cul-de-sac of dreams," the tune seems tailor-made for Silicon Valley, and Carpenter reminded the crowd to take time out to "make a swell martini" and "swim naked at night."

The real kicker was her closing song, a special treat reserved exclusively for live audiences known as "If I Were a Diva." This song takes cracks at Madonna, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Shania Twain. The audience roared as Carpenter struck an angelic pose between each verse and delivered some very catty lyrics: "If I were Madonna I would have an accent/Wear Dolce & Gabbana each and every day/I would have an escort/ He would be my consort/He would be a good sport/ And I would have my way."

It appears both Wynonna and Carpenter--who have never been cookie-cutter celebrities anyway--are stepping away from their thrones in Nashville's country kingdom to concentrate on their own artistic pursuits. With a demand that warranted two nights each at Villa Montalvo and the Winery, it looks like fans will follow wherever they lead.

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Web extra to the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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