Welcome to ‘Women Rising’, a new feature from The Shotgun Seat highlighting new female artists in the country music scene. The project serves to amplify voices often not heard on radio, and to promote the unique and compelling work being done by rising women in country music. The project will serve to offer the perspectives of these women on their own work as well the country music landscape more broadly.
The neotraditional revival in country music over the past couple of years has been a refreshing turn for the genre. From Luke Combs to Jon Pardi to Midland, mainstream acts have seen tremendous success in blending rootsy sounds with modern tendencies. One voice worth turning to in this realm is that of Candi Carpenter. With a stunning vocal presence and a pen to match, Carpenter is already making waves what she calls “cosmic-country”, described as “Americana with a traditional country twist”. Listening to her music, this is clearly evident, both sonically and vocally.
So how did Carpenter arrive at this artistic style? She didn’t have a choice, mostly. “I was raised on Southern gospel music. My family was part of a band called The Carpenter’s, with an apostrophe S because we belonged to Jesus. But it’s funny, a lot of listeners finding the band on iTunes for the first time would think we were The Carpenters and get really angry when they downloaded the music and found out it wasn’t Richard and Karen, so we had like a one star rating. But growing up in a family band, Christian music is what I listened to all the time, and my mom and dad felt like country music was the most wholesome route for me. I didn’t discover rock, and pop, and rap, and all of the other music I enjoy now as an adult, until I was in my late teens”, she outlined. “They either wanted me to be a country singer or a southern gospel singer”.
Despite these early country influences, Carpenter was inspired by many across the musical spectrum, from traditional country heavyweights to pop-country stalwarts. “I’ve had so many influences, growing up in Lansing, Michigan, I was exposed to pretty much every kind of music as a teenager. I loved rap and hip-hop. I actually had a brief pop career in Los Angeles. But I absolutely learned everything I know about country music from my grandpa when I was a little girl. He played steel guitar and dubbed in for musicians up and down rural Ohio when they didn’t have a steel guitar player and he had perfect pitch, was such an accomplished musician — he was really the reason that I got into country music in the first place. And then when LeAnn Rimes hit the scene, like every other little girl I wanted to be just like her, so I practiced singing “Blue” with her on my CD player every day and when I was around nine years old my family was vacationing in Tennessee I got a phonebook and started calling record labels and asking them if I could come in and sing for them. And of course, they probably blocked the phone number”, she elaborated. “But I was really driven from an early age, and discovered Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and female songwriters, like I didn’t know that I could be a songwriter until I learned about those two ladies. So I started trying to write my own songs — and this is before Taylor Swift hit the scene, so I didn’t have a female recording artist my age to look up to who was a songwriter — so that was really important to know that that was an option, and they really inspired me to explore that part of my artistry”. In addition to the musical roots, Carpenter has felt a deep connection to the genre’s history and institutions. “I was actually raised backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, so I grew up around Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, and traditional country music will always be part of who I am”.
Unsurprisingly, the singer-songwriter also feels drawn to the genre’s rich history of storytelling. “Later in life I had the opportunity to write with Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers, who became kind of like an Uncle to me, and I learned so much about songwriting from him and he was just a wealth of knowledge and experience and a wonderful mentor. I was also Little Jimmy Dickens’ housekeeper for a year — kind of my first real job. It was funny, I’d be sweeping the floors and Brad Paisley would call, and Jimmy had so many cool stories about Hank Williams and Ferlin Husky and so many of the greats from the Opry. I learned a lot about the history and tradition of country music from him as well” she said. “I think that’s why the storytelling tradition of country music is so important to me and why I want to carry it on in my music today is because they laid such a beautiful foundation for newer artists to continue the legacy and I want to be one of those people.”
On the genre’s mainstream embrace of traditional sounds, she had this to say: “I think people have always loved traditional country music, I just don’t think that they’ve had access to it at country radio, and I think that the powers that be are starting to see that there’s a market for it. I’m excited about it”.
Given the rich musical influences growing up as well as the natural gift for music and storytelling Carpenter possesses, her always-present inclination towards a career in music is far from shocking. Was it her first dream? Well, almost. “When I was very little I wanted to be a professional basketball player, but I only got tall enough to look awkward in photos with my friends and not tall enough to be a professional athlete”.
Ever since then, though, there’s been no stopping her. “I’ve always been a performer, I just couldn’t turn it off, I couldn’t help it. School talent shows and county fairs and karaoke competitions were a great outlet for a little girl with too much energy, and I really loved the feeling of performing for people and making them smile and I knew when I was nine years old that that was what I wanted to do with my life”.
She continued in adding that, while it is in many ways a dream come true, it hasn’t always been the easiest of roads. “This really has always been my dream. I moved to Nashville officially on my own when I was 15 years old, my mom and dad pulled me out of school when we met a lady at a bar who told me she wanted to be my manager when I was 13. And I moved into [a hotel] with her, and I played every honkytonk and bar until three o’clock in the morning and that was my high school — not the best experience honestly. And when I was 16 I started touring with Grand Ole Opry star Jack Greene and she became his manager as well, and that’s why I had the opportunity to grow up backstage at the Opry.” She continued in her praise of Greene: “Jack was an incredible mentor and friend to me. He was struggling with dementia and could only remember about 30 minutes worth of material and I loved him so much. He was such a sweet and precious human being, and our manager had me basically cover the other half of the show. We weren’t treated very well by her and it was a scary and dangerous and unfortunate time for both of us”.
Of course, Carpenter was able to find some light in those dark times, turning them into creative inspiration as all great songwriters do. “I write a lot about the darker side of life, and that’s because I’ve been through some very difficult and trying times, just like everybody else has, but so many of these things happened to me when I was so young with this manager that I had and the situations that I was around in the music industry at such a young age. It’s been hard to process a lot of it, I’ll be honest. It’s hard to call it what it is and say that it was abuse, but that’s what happened to me, and I choose to deal with it by writing about it and hoping that it will inspire other people to look for healing and hope in even the darkest situations, and I hope that I can show people that no matter what they’ve been through there’s light at the end of the tunnel”.
And through it all, she wanted to make one thing abundantly clear: “I have to stress too that Jack was just a wonderful angel of a human being, and that none of the terrible things that happened to me when I was a child were because of him. He was in a similar situation, and, you know, elder abuse is real too”.
So what would she recommend to those looking to follow a path in entertainment? “Well, I would advise everybody to stay in school and finish school. Put education first, because you can use that time to hone your craft as a songwriter and as a musician, learn to play an instrument so that you can accompany yourself, no matter where you’re playing, because you’ll have more opportunities if you can. And just, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So ask the right questions”.
These difficult stories are a critical part of Carpenter’s artistry, and adds an admirable level of humanity to her story and music.
All these stories — good and bad — have led Carpenter to a place of artistic prowess and success. She elegantly sums up in her own words: “I wish I could go back and tell fifteen year old Candi that it was going to happen, it was just going to take a hell of a lot longer than she thought”.
One of these remarkable achievements is that Carpenter is being produced by renowned Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. Carpenter, by her own account, was thrilled to have such an opportunity. “Brandi is one of my favorite recording artists and songwriters of all time. She’s an amazing producer, just a force of nature. I’ve learned so much in just the last few months of working with her, about fearlessly being yourself. I think I’ve been in Nashville for such a long time — like, 20 years I’ve been here — and you can lose yourself along the way. The first piece of advice a lot of artists are given is to change themselves and not be who they are and you think at first ‘well, if I do this for a while, if I accommodate this person then maybe it’ll be up to me and I can really make the music I want to make’. And down the line, you don’t really know who that person was anymore. Brandi helped me find myself again. She went through my songs, my entire catalogue, everything that I’ve written over the last twenty years of my career and helped me reconnect with the little girl who wanted to be an artist in the first place. She’s got a gift for bringing out authenticity”.
One effort the two have put out to the world thus far is a track entitled “Little Sparrow”, a song she describes as “one of my favorite songs for a long time”. Upon listening, both Carpenter’s and Carlile’s personal styles — rootsy, eccentric, and haunting — are plainly evident. “It’s got that Southern, gothic, haunting, romantic quality that I love so much, and I sat down with my friends Amanda McCoy and Aldwit to work up an arrangement that felt true to me, and when we performed “Little Sparrow” at the Opry for the first time, the reaction was really humbling and overwhelming and so we decided as a team to record it and put it out. The version that ends up on the NBC special is a little different than what we came up with in the studio because the musicians really felt the vibe in the moment with it as well. It came out a little more ghostly and dark than we thought it would but I’m so happy with the result”.
In addition to working with Carlile — an influence on Carpenter in her own right — she has also cultivated a relationship with Dolly Parton, who has openly piled praise onto Carpenter. “I’m still trying to process the fact that Dolly Parton knows who I am. It seems surreal. I’m still trying to process the fact that I’m working with Brandi Carlile. I mean, dreams really do come true folks. I’ve worked hard for many years and seen so many doors close in my face, so to have them begin to open last year, I feel like I’m living in a dream sort of, someone else’s life, and I’m just trying to adjust to the fact that this is reality, and learn to enjoy it and not be overwhelmed and stressed out by it, because this is supposed to be fun! And in this instant it’s so exciting. But wow. I mean, every time I talk to Dolly I just kind of, make a strange noise or don’t say what I mean to say. She asked me ‘did you knock ’em dead out there?’ and I said ‘ah I don’t know!’ And she did my makeup! I can’t believe it. My best friend Jenny was there, and Dolly used Jenny’s makeup brush and Jenny put it in a frame. I love Dolly Parton with all my heart”.
If working with Carlile and befriending Parton wasn’t enough, Carpenter also made her debut performance at the iconic Grand Ole Opry. “I made my Opry debut July 12th, 2019, and I know that for a fact because it’s tattooed on my arm. I can’t remember dates really well so I put my Grand Ole Opry debut date on my arm so I’d never forget. It’s always been a dream of mine to make my Grand Ole Opry debut. Growing up backstage at the Opry, I never had the chance to perform at the Opry itself. I opened Grand Ole Opry tour package shows when I was a little girl but I never played the stage, never performed on the stage at the Mother Church. I’ve had so many dreams at night about that moment and nothing was more surreal than the actual moment on stage”. She added, “It was — I cried the whole time! My mom said she didn’t think that I would be able to sing because I was crying so much, and somehow I managed to get it together every time the music started. But I got to pay a special tribute to Jack and his son Jan brought his guitar to sit in the circle with me when I performed “There Goes My Everything”, and they put a picture of Jack and I behind me on a screen and I really felt like he was there for it”.
Next up on the list? Nothing more than a world tour. “My management is handling all that right now”, she laughs. “I’m just focusing on writing the record but I know it’s gonna hit me like a truck when it’s time to go. We’re gonna be in rehearsals and right now I’m just focusing on the creative process of writing the record and finishing that up”.
Carpenter has also been deeply involved in the movement of empowering women across the genre. Specifically, she feels this reflected in her work with the Song Suffragettes. “When I was growing up in Nashville the attitude that female artists had imposed on them by the community was very different, and there was a competitiveness that I don’t feel in Nashville anymore. I feel women supporting each other and understanding that we’re better together and we’re stronger together and I think Song Suffragettes has played a big role in cultivating that culture here. And also, I don’t think the average country music listener knows how dire the situation is for women at country radio right now and we’re vocal about it just to bring attention to that, so that maybe more people will call their local country radio station and request their favorite female country artists. I’m not sure what the statistics are for last year, I haven’t looked yet, but [prior] I think it was two out of every ten artists played at country radio were female”.
She continued to outline the dire situation: “A total of 430 songs were recommended through 42 refreshes on Spotify, 40 of the songs were performed by a lead female artists, 87% male. And some of my favorite artists of all time are male, I just want an equal shot for the ladies”.
She has also done her part in empowering fellow female singer-songwriters, specifically one of her best friends, Kalie Shorr. Boasting a number of writing credits on Shorr’s debut full-length album Open Book, Carpenter spoke passionately about the experience. “Kalie’s one of my best friends and our co-writes are basically just us hanging out, it’s just kind of what we do, it’s us in our natural habitat, have a bottle of two dollar wine and we talk about life and it usually turns into a four hour session”, she laughs. “It was really beautiful to support Kalie through a difficult time creatively as a friend because, Open Book was born out of the hardest year of her life and we were all — the whole creative community that she surrounds herself with kind of helped birth that record and she always surrounds herself with wonderful, creative human beings. It was just a beautiful experience to channel those difficult dark times into something powerful.”
“Nothing could ever come between my friendship with Kalie and — I’m not even worried about success interrupting that because our love for each other is so real and strong, and we met through Song Suffragettes and it really does foster an important community of creative women. Not that we’re important, but the community is so important for us.”
Carpenter also has her finger on the pulse of country radio’s blindness towards equality. “At this point we’re just focusing on releasing music and touring. We’re not really going for radio at the moment, it’s just about building the fanbase organically and organically growing that way. I don’t know, I had a single out at country radio two years ago and it’s a heartbreaking game to play”. On other means of music consumption, she added that “it’s like Field of Dreams. If you build it they will come. I think if you’re making music that’s true to who you are and true to your heart, the right people will find it, and that’s what they’ve done and what I’m hoping to do as well”. Further, on female role models, she had some touching words: “It’s so important for everyone — male or female or whoever you are, wherever you come from — to have solid female role models, because women are strong, women are givers of life, women are powerful, and women are leaders. I can’t imagine — like, my mother was my first great female role model and I’d love to see more women in positions of leadership across the board”.
And when asked to recommend one female artist everyone should be seeking, the question was an easy one for her to answer. “Well Kalie Shorr of course. She’s my sister of my heart, I love her so much. And if I had no cuts on that album it would still be one of my favorites. The thing about Kalie is she doesn’t need a co-writer to write a great song, she can do it all on her own. She’s just a genius, she’s a genius. I’ve never met a songwriter like her before, and I’ve never met anyone who has such a great way with words. I read her interviews sometimes and I think, ‘oh my gosh, why can’t I ever speak that clearly?’ She inspires me, and she’s made me a better performer, a better songwriter, and a better friend. I’m just genuinely her biggest fan. I think she’s great.”
If country music is going to move forward, it needs artists who can empower women and encompass the roots and traditions of the genre. In terms of those on the rise who offer both qualities, and so with incredible vocal talents and impeccable songwriting chops, you need look no further than Candi Carpenter.