Mary Chapin Carpenter was born in Princeton, New Jersey. Her early musical interests came from listening to her sisters' albums of artists such as The Mamas & the Papas, the Beatles, and Judy Collins. When Carpenter was 16 her parents divorced, an event that affected Carpenter and that she wrote about in her song "House of Cards."
Carpenter spent much of her time in high school playing the guitar and piano; while at Princeton Day School, her "classmates threatened to cut her guitar strings if she played "Leaving on a Jet Plane" one more time."
Despite her interest in music, Carpenter never considered performing publicly until, shortly after graduating from Taft, her father suggested that she perform at a local open-mike bar, a stressful experience for the shy Carpenter.
Carpenter graduated from Brown University in 1981 with a degree in American Civilization. Carpenter played some summer sets in Washington's music scene, where she met guitarist John Jennings, who would become her producer and long-time collaborator. However, she considered music a hobby and planned on getting a "real job."
She briefly quit performing, but after several job interviews decided to return to music. Carpenter was persuaded by Jennings to play original material instead of covers. Within a few years, she landed a manager and recorded a demo tape that led to a deal with Columbia Records who marketed her as a country singer.
Carpenter's first album, 1987's Hometown Girl, did not produce any singles, although 1989's State of the Heart and 1990's Shooting Straight in the Dark each produced four Top 20 hits on the Billboard country singles charts.
In the 2000s, Carpenter's albums were departures from her early work, becoming less radio-friendly and more focused on societal and political issues. In 2001, Carpenter released her first studio album in five years, Time*Sex*Love. The New York Times described it as "essentially a concept album about middle age."
The album sold fewer copies than Carpenter's earlier work, and yielded only one charting single, "Simple Life," which peaked on the U.S. Country chart at #53.
In 2004, Carpenter released Between Here and Gone, a somber album that addressed events such as the events of September 11 and the death of singer-songwriter Dave Carter. The album received some of the best reviews of Carpenter's career.
Carpenter's ninth studio album, The Calling, was released in 2007 by Rounder Records' rock/pop imprint Zoë. It is her most acclaimed and most topical album to date, featuring commentary about contemporary politics, including reactions to the impact of Hurricane Katrina ("Houston") and the the Dixie Chicks ("On With the Song.")
In less than three months after its release, The Calling sold more than 100,000 copies in the US, without benefit of any substantial airplay on commercial country radio.
Carpenter has struggled with periods of depression since childhood. While on tour for The Calling in spring 2007, Carpenter experienced severe chest and back pain. She continued to perform until a bout of breathlessness took her to the ER, where she learned she had suffered a pulmonary embolism. Cancelling her summer tour to recover, Carpenter "felt that [she] had let everyone down" and fell into a depression before rediscovering "the learning curve of gratitude." Carpenter spoke about the experience on National Public Radio's This I Believe program in June 2007.
She followed that with The Age of Miracles in 2010. It debuted at #28, her highest peak since 1996.
Carpenter has won five Grammy Awards, and is the only artist to have won four consecutive Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, which she received from 1992 to 1995. As of 2005, she had sold more than 12 million records.
Carpenter tours frequently, and returns to Washington almost every summer to perform at the popular outdoor venue Wolftrap.