If Jim Carpenter had the proverbial third hand, he could use it exclusively to ask the powerful to add a 25th hour to each day. Otherwise, he’ll probably never find enough time to complete what he calls his “documentation efforts” – which is his way of validating his own wave of creativity.
Now 65, the Niantic-based carpenter is best known as the superb American songwriter who fronts two of the area’s most popular bands, The Hoolios and the CarLeans. With these acts and in solo form, Carpenter composed hundreds of songs, released a dozen recordings, and became a known and beloved blacksmith on the East Coast and Gulf Coast.
It has also gained quite a reputation in recent years for two collections of evocative and fiery short stories that fit comfortably and competitively into the august niche called Southern Lit. Although these are his earliest publishing efforts, the volumes reflect only a small portion of the large number of ongoing stories and novels he has written and continues to write.
Tonight at the Knickerbocker Music Center in Westerly, Carpenter presents a new album, “In the Shadows of Dixie”, which he recorded with a new band called Southern Fiction. In addition, he will celebrate the publication of his third book, titled “Pearl”, containing five new stories and his first foray into published long-form fiction, the short story “Black Narrows”.
Granted, while the COVID downtime has helped Carpenter’s slew of projects, his continued prolificacy is something he’s had to learn to appreciate because, frankly, there’s not much he can do about it. Fans of his music and fiction have said they’re surprised he isn’t more famous or more successful – and those who know Carpenter well might even feel a little frustrated because the man just isn’t interested. or comfortable with self-promotion.
A lack of promotion
“Since the music is meant to be performed live, I’m obligated to promote it,” Carpenter laughs in a recent conversation. “I say it like that because my flaw is that I can’t sell myself. It’s a flaw, not humility. I like making and performing music, but not promoting it. And I don’t have couldn’t force myself to read a book because… I guess I’d rather spend my time catching up on the songs and stories I HAVEN’T written yet I’m always busy trying to catch up because I feel this need to document everything while I can.”
In this context, Carpenter is working on a new double album with the CarLeans and a second solo double album called “30”, where he looks back on a bunch of tracks that he liked, for one reason or another, but that he couldn’t finish. – or which were completed and recorded but ended up not being suitable for album projects at the time.
“I’m pretty honest with myself,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to revisit some old songs and see if I could find 8 or more that might be worth playing. I found 30 of which I was like, ‘Someone might save that.’ They WON’T – nobody will touch that stuff for various reasons – but they’re good songs and so I’m going to record them and send them because they deserve it.”
As for “In the Shadows of Dixie,” Carpenter says the collective darker tone of the songs suggested a new band record and perform them.
“Each of the bands I’m in has sort of been reduced to doing special things,” Carpenter said. “COVID has scared everyone and we’re doing less gigs in bars. Also, at this point, none of us are doing this for the money. And for ‘In the Shadows of Dixie’, it’s songs with which I didn’t feel comfortable in terms of CarLeans or Hoolios.
“It’s an album of ‘isms’ – songs about racism, sexism, alcoholism, voyeurism, polyamorism… Then there’s basic adultery.” He’s laughing. “And a little farming! I had to put something normal in there. But it’s a disconcerting group of songs.”
Carpenter decided to ask friends of the band Sunday Gravy if they would help record the material that became “In the Shadows of Dixie” and electric guitarist Jim Tarbox, organist Mike Derry (a former Hoolio), bassist Dave Allen and drummer Melvin Corcino agreed. . CarLeans vocalist Sarah MacLean provided lead vocals along with Carpenter. The basic tracks were recorded at Sonalyst’s Power Station NE in Waterford, with overdubs and mixing at The Mockery in Nashville and Carpenter’s own Loco Dare.
“It was an amazing experience. It’s not always easy to get musicians to open up and share, but these guys – who are really good players – generally seemed to like the songs, even if they were songs weird,” Carpenter said. “In the end, we got along so well and the recording went so well that we decided to play officially.”
“In the Shadows of Dixie” contains 12 tracks, and Carpenter’s strong ability to merge melodism and storytelling is both cinematic and evocative. For all the layers of darkness described by Carpenter – and there they are! — the songs are always memorable and enjoyable to hear. “Fresh Horses,” the title track, “Til Death Do Us Part,” “My Only Son,” and “If This Old House Could Talk” resonate with this reporter, but AZ’s narrative and musical force is still impressive.
“As time passes and we continue to play together, I’m happy with the creativity (of the band) and the way they help the songs evolve for the better. I wanted Dave and Mike and Melvin and Jim because that I trusted them. At one point in the studio, I said, “I have an idea to change it this way”, and I showed what I wanted to do.
“And Mike said, ‘No.’ I smiled because no one had ever said that to me before. I thought, ‘Am I a bully? And he was right. feel like they’re not just doing what I want, but putting in the work. It’s very cool and very nice.
It also pleases Carpenter that Southern Fiction’s Friday opening is The Hoolios. “We’re all old friends who have been playing together and together for years. It’s fair and comfortable.”
between the covers
Carpenter decided to extend the release party to include the release of “Oyster” because – completely unintentionally – the two projects are linked by their thematic darkness.
“The first two books I wrote were just fun, offbeat southern bits. I put them out first — like I actually had an audience and could gauge how they would react,” he says. with typical self-mockery. “But I also wanted to start in a more humorous way rather than start with all the really dark, unfunny stuff that I wanted to get out.”
Carpenter, lived in Miami, Nashville, Key West, Norfolk and Cape May before moving to Norwich, where he lived with his wife Robin for 30 years and where they raised their son Jake. But despite his longtime status as a New Englander, the south flows through his fiction like a sun-warmed river. Childhood days spent on Chincoteague Island off Virginia, where his family had an oyster business, haunt him in ways he tries to explore in his fiction.
“It’s a coincidence that ‘The Shadows of Dixie’ and ‘Pearl’ came together at the same time, or maybe they didn’t,” Carpenter said. “Writing fiction and writing songs are two very different things for me, and they add up. It feels like it’s about time it all came out.”
The “Pearl” stories have the assured yet distinct tone of Carpenter’s Deep South – a tone that can simultaneously come across as harsh and even judgmental without ever losing a distinctly human sense of empathy for the same characters; the storytellers, after all, live in the same environment and face the same challenges.
“Pearl” also marks a first for Carpenter with its inclusion of the new “Black Narrows”, which provides the back half of the work and provides a deep exclamation point to the overall reading experience.
“This whole book is different,” Carpenter says. “I wanted to experiment with longer fiction because I’ve been frustrated for years trying to finish a novel. I’ve written thousands of pages about characters I really love – but couldn’t That I’ve completed ‘Black Narrows’ is an interesting step for me, plus it fits thematically – some of this work could be seen as controversial and could be taken the wrong way.
Carpenter stops. “You know, the stories are darker. The songs are darker. I don’t know how this will all be taken. Again, it’s part of my own efforts to document what I’m doing. along the way.” His tone cleared. “And not just that I’m really dark.”