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This article by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
September 23, 1998. All rights reserved.
Folk’s Newcomer — Not
Indiana-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Carrie
Newcomer writes songs from the heart, without a lot of smoke and
Her songs are easy to interpret, and her growing numbers of music
fans prove they like it that way.
On "My True Name," her new album from Rounder Records, on
a song called "When One Door Closes (Another One Opens Wide),"
she could be talking about one love relationship or she could be
to thousands of working men and women around the country. In either
case, most of Newcomer’s songs are simple and direct expressions of
pain and hope. There’s not a lot of ambiguity, and that’s the beauty
"It’s really a no-holds-barred kind of music, and it’s not cryptic
at all," says Newcomer, whose country-folk-pop band is coming
to Hightstown Saturday, September 26. "I call it like I see it,
and hopefully, people find differing ways to interpret my songs."
Unlike a lot of contemporary folk singers, Newcomer isn’t afraid to
write autobiographical songs. "I don’t think there’s enough
out there, and maybe that’s why I’ve chosen to write in this
she says. "I write about what has been really joyous and what
have been some of the great griefs of my life. It’s always going to
be pretty open with me. I feel so thankful when people E-mail me and
say how much they enjoyed this song or that song," says Newcomer,
who includes her E-mail address in the liner notes to her new CD.
Newcomer was born and raised in Elkhart, Indiana, an industrial town
not far from Chicago. As a kid, she recalls listening to — and
loving — everything from the blues radio stations in Chicago to
Motown and the Beatles. She’s been living in Bloomington for the past
"Bloomington is a like a little Amherst," she says, in a phone
interview. "Throughout the Midwest there are these little bastions
of culture — and in this part of Indiana, it’s Bloomington."
The town is home to the University of Indiana, a school that has one
top-notch jazz band and one of the best music programs in the nation.
"For a tiny town in Indiana, there’s a great music scene and a
lot of opportunities for musicians here," she adds. "I’ve
never really had any trouble finding places to play here. Also
Cincinnati, and Cleveland are not far from here."
When school is in session, Bloomington is about 75,000 people, she
estimates. "It’s not a huge town, but there are a multitude jazz
and folk clubs," she says. While it’s no singer-songwriter mecca
like Boston, Austin, or Nashville, Bloomington does have a variety
of cultural activities, and Newcomer wanted to raise her daughter
with a lot of exposure to the arts. Newcomer and her husband, Robert
Mitas, are raising her daughter from her first marriage, which ended
"It was very important to me that I live in a place where she
could get enough music and art and theater and they have a lot of
really wonderful kids programs here," she says. "We have this
little place in the woods outside of town on about seven acres. I
love to travel and visit Seattle or have a day off in New York or
Boston or Austin. But when the tour is over, I really appreciate
Mitas manages the Carrie Newcomer Band and attends law school at the
same time. "He’s a really inspiring person who grabs life with
both hands," she says. She met Mitas, a native of Indiana, at
a small folk festival in Bloomington when he was attending graduate
school at Columbia University in New York.
"He had to come back because his grandmother lived here and he
would go back and forth from New York to Indiana; we kind of fell
in love through letters," she explains. The couple married in
1994. That same year, Rounder Records took notice of Newcomer’s
and the numbers she was selling on her first two, self-produced,
albums. Rounder picked up her second album and distributed it. The
Massachusetts-based record company did so well that it signed her
to a multi-album deal.
Newcomer has been performing professionally since 1980, but as far
back as the 1970s, when she was in high school, she played bars in
Michigan, not far from Elkhart.
Even though she was painfully shy in her younger years,
she says, "the first places I had paying gigs were up in Michigan,
where I could lie about my age and get in — until my parents found
out what I was doing." She went to college for visual arts, but
found that she kept coming back to song writing and singing.
"I had to learn how to perform," she explains, "the
part kind of came through the back door for me. The fact that I’m
doing this now, and I’ve come to a place where I’m a performer —
people who knew me as a kid might be surprised and smile now."
"There was something in me that really had this passion for music.
What happened was I had to find a way to make it work here," she
recalls of her early years, booking herself into coffee houses and
folk festivals around the Midwest.
That was hard at first, she admits, but being resourceful and
she produced two albums on her own label with her own trio. By the
early 1990s, she was making her presence known on the East Coast with
extensive touring from Boston to North Carolina. When she was back
home in Indiana, through the late 1980s, she gave guitar lessons to
pay the rent.
Was there a point in the late 1980s, when she was struggling to raise
her daughter as a single mom and make ends meet, when she considered
scrapping it all and taking a day job? "Absolutely. There are
many times in any career, if you’re an artist or musician, when you
think about this.
"Those of us in folk music don’t go into this thinking, `Gosh,
I think I’ll go out there and be rich and famous.’ Most of us got
into this because we didn’t have a choice, there was something calling
us. After I divorced I had to think very seriously in terms of was
my daughter going to be all right financially. There are ups and downs
in this business, and I’m not a person who has a really tough
Fortunately, fans of the "new country" or "alternative
country" are embracing Newcomer’s soft exterior and music via
the video for a song from "My True Name." It’s currently
on Country Music Television. But still, it’s CMT’s `alternative
program, where the cable channel airs `Americana’ artists like Lucinda
Williams, Dave Alvin, and Katy Moffatt, all of whom blur the lines
between folk, country, and blues with original songs.
"There’s such amazingly interesting stuff happening on the edges
that is not going to fit into any mainstream music form. Now, at least
with the Americana format in radio, there’s an opportunity for people
to hear the music."
In Hightstown on September 26, Newcomers’ band will include guitarist
Keith Scooglund, Steve Mascari on bass, and Jamey Reid on drums and
percussion. Newcomer says her band is able to alternate between
back — playing sensitively and quietly — as well as rocking
Meanwhile, what does Newcomer make of all the comparisons between
herself and Mary Chapin Carpenter and Kathy Mattea, two of country
music’s top stars who emerged from the folk tradition?
"I did a show with Mary recently. She’s a very gracious person
to work with. I think my music is more roots-based, and sometimes
I think I get a little more nitty-gritty," she says.
Newcomer’s country-folk-pop touches many people. Ultimately, that’s
what’s most important to her. And answering her E-mail. "If
any theme that prevails through my music, it’s a real love for people
and how they grow and change and make mistakes and heal and
she says. And since she doesn’t mind baring her soul to her audience,
writing from her own experience, her audience continues to grow. Such
honesty is refreshing.
— Richard J. Skelly
& Sounds, Grace Norton Rogers School, Stockton Street, Hightstown,
609-259-5764. $15. Saturday, September 26, 8 p.m.
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