- - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mary Chapin Carpenter fondly remembers now-defunct D.C. venues that gave her and other then-fledgling artists such as Emmylou Harris and Cass Elliott an early boost in the ’80s: Clubs like Gallagher’s Pub on Connecticut Avenue and The Shadows at 34th and M streets in Georgetown are long gone from the local music scene.

But the five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter enjoys returning to her former hometown and checking out local performers.

“I don’t live in Washington anymore, but in some ways I think the music scene is as rich as it has ever been, just because there are so many delivery systems for music,” Ms. Carpenter said. “If history is any guide, it all tends to go in cycles. There is a renaissance in terms of music. Social media is the new word-of-mouth.”

Her music has been a topic of that virtual word-of-mouth as fans and the artist herself celebrate her debut orchestral album “Songs from the Movie” and the worldwide tour that brings her Friday to Filene Center at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, before she takes a short break from the road.

Tweets and online postings are just the latest conduits for the buzz that continually hovers around Ms. Carpenter’s music. Anyone who attends a songwriters’ session in Nashville will hear her name mentioned in reverent tones.

Cover of Mary Chapin Carpenter's orchestral album "Songs from the Movie"
Cover of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s orchestral album “Songs from the Movie” more >

Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, calls her music is a rarity.

“She tells tales of our experience, a real human experience that touches fans and listeners in real and personal ways,” Mr. Hilly said in an email from his Nashville office. “Her gift to us is her ability to share stories in ways [in which we can all] relate.”

Ms. Carpenter, 56, has written and spoken candidly about the sorrows in her life — a divorce, her father’s death in 2011, illness — and she said she found the challenge of working with an orchestra both daunting and spiritually invigorating.

“I feel like I somehow gained and learned something new, and something tangible and spiritual as well,” she said. “I have learned how to sing with this enormous, powerful organism. It is a good feeling to have this sense of accomplishment.

“I have wanted to do this for years, and years and years and years and years, but I also learned very quickly during the recording session that just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you know how to do it.”

Her particular musical expression often has focused on her rich alto singing voice and acoustic guitar work — or at least that is how it may seem to fans.

For this orchestral project, she collaborated with the multi-Grammy Award-winning arranger/composer Vince Mendoza, who aranged and conducted the music, as well as produced the album with Ms. Carpenter and Matt Rollings. The music consists of orchestral interpretations of 10 of Ms. Carpenter’s most-loved songs, including “Come On Come On,” “Mrs. Hemingway” and “Goodnight America.”

“This project … allowed us to focus on the poetry [of the lyrics] and what it evokes,” said Mr. Mendoza, will conduct the orchestra during the Wolf Trap show. “My aim was not to rewrite the songs but enhance the poetry in them.”

Although music insiders especially laud the lyrics written by Ms. Carpenter, this project has given her songwriting new depth, even for her.

 “I had to find my place in the [recording] sessions and now in a live setting,” she said. “I never had an opportunity like that before. Playing in front of these world-class orchestras is a powerful physical and spiritual force. I feel like that [man in the old Memorex tape commercials] that is blown backward.”

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