June 30, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, and Mary Chapin Carpenter

The next book of Malcolm Gladwell's, the star of our last post, is called Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don't. It sounds like a great topic for Gladwell.

I've been interested in a related phenomenon. Why do some artists create one piece of work that outclasses all his or her other accomplishments?

I was thinking about this why listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter, one of the few country-folkie singer-songwriters I like. She has a lovely voice, a gift for both melody and lyrics, and a knack for finding cool songs of other estimable writers to cover.

But what makes a journeyman writer create one breakout hit, or one masterpiece, that transcends any of the artist's prior work? Whether or not you like American Pie, nothing in Don McLean's work before (or after, for that matter), prepared you for it.

I feel the same way about Mary Chapin Carpenter's Come On Come On, the title song of her best album. It wasn't a "hit" but that's only because of its depressing subject. I think it evokes the emotions and resonance of the best short stories. Here's the original version:

And here's a lovely live version performed at Wolf Trap in 1995.

Gee, now I'm depressed. How about some happy Mary. Her wonderful version of Lucinda Williams's Passionate Kisses. I think it's a charming video, too.