Carpenter was born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of a Life magazine executive; she spent two years of her childhood in Japan, where her father was launching the Asian edition of Life. Her mother had begun to play guitar during the folk explosion of the early '60s, and she gave her daughter a guitar when Mary became interested in music as a child. Carpenter played music during her high-school years, but she didn't actively pursue it as a career. In 1974 her family moved to Washington, D.C., where she became involved in the city's folk music scene. After graduating from high school in the mid-'70s, she spent a year traveling Europe; when she was finished, she enrolled at Brown University, where she was an American civilization major.
Following her college graduation, she became deeply involved in the Washington-area folk scene, performing a mixture of originals, contemporary singer/songwriter material, and pop covers. Carpenter met guitarist John Jennings during the early '80s and the pair began performing together. They eventually made a demo tape of their songs, which they sold at their concerts. The tape wound up at Columbia Records, and the label offered Carpenter an audition. By early 1987, Columbia had signed her as a recording artist, and her first album, Hometown Girl, was released that year.
Hometown Girl and its follow-up, State of the Heart (1989), earned her a dedicated cult following, as well as two Top Ten singles, "Never Had It So Good" and "Quittin' Time." Country radio was hesitant to play her soft, folky, feminist material, but she received good reviews and airplay on more progressive country stations, as well as college radio. Shooting Straight in the Dark, released in 1990, managed to break down a lot of the barriers that stood in her way. "Down at the Twist and Shout" became a number two single and the album sold well, setting the stage for her breakthrough album, 1992's Come on Come On.
Come on Come On signaled a slight change in direction for Carpenter -- although there were still folk songs, she felt freer to loosen up on honky tonk and country-rock songs, which resulted in several hit singles. Two of the singles from the album -- "I Feel Lucky" and "Passionate Kisses" -- hit number four, and "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" became her first number one. Come on Come On would eventually sell over two million copies. Her fifth album, Stones in the Road, released in 1994, concentrated on the folkier material, but it was still a major success, selling over a million copies within its first six months of release. Place in the World was released in October 1996, and Time* Sex* Love* followed in spring 2001.
Carpenter's tenth album, 2004's Between Here and Gone, was produced with pianist Matt Rollings. The Calling was issued in 2007 by Zoë Records. Zoë also released a holiday album from Carpenter, Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas, in the fall of 2008. A new studio album, The Age of Miracles, appeared early in 2010. Carpenter followed it in the summer of 2012 with Ashes and Roses, an entirely self-penned collection that she co-produced with Rollings. In 2013, she teamed with Grammy-winning arranger Vince Mendoza to create an orchestral album of songs from her existing catalog. Songs from the Movie was released in January of 2014 ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi