“I Feel Lucky” wasn’t the first Mary Chapin Carpenter song I heard, but I’m pretty sure it was the second. The first was (naturally) “Down At The Twist & Shout” which really put her on the country music map, even though Chapin never really fit very neatly on that map. The first time I heard “I Feel Lucky” was when I saw the video on VH1 one of the first days after I moved into the dorms at Iowa in 1992. I liked it enough and was more into country music than I had at any time previously, but I didn’t actually buy my first Mary Chapin Carpenter CD until December 1993 and it was Shooting Straight In The Dark – the one with “Down At The Twist & Shout” on it.
There are two types of Mary Chapin Carpenter songs – the uptempo, radio friendly songs, and her slower, more introspective songs that didn’t get as much radio airplay. “I Feel Lucky” falls firmly in the former category. It’s the kind of honky-tonk story song that country music does so well. It has hooks galore, clever lyrics and Chapin’s bright alto belting out a solid delivery. It’s so damn much fun, and that’s why it’s today’s song. You know from the moment that she stumbles out of her rack and opens up the paper to the page in the back that it’s gonna be good.
I think the thing I love most about this song is how it could so easily be a throwaway country song, one of those generic songs that you hear for a few months and then don’t think of again for the rest of your life. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this would almost certainly be the case. But Chapin is an ace songwriter who always puts her personal stamp on any song. Even songs that she wrote but didn’t record really do scream her name (see Wynonna’s “Girls With Guitars” for Exhibit A.) And her lyrical fingerprints are all over “I Feel Lucky.” It’s classic Chapin, seamlessly blending a story of someone whose day doesn’t start out so great but ends up winning the lottery with a killer melody and great production. This song always, ALWAYS makes me want a pack of Camels, a burrito and a Barq’s and I don’t even smoke.
This song really is Chapin at the peak of her commercial success. I always refer to its album, Come On, Come On, as the country equivalent to Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation because they spun seven singles off that sucker, the last of which was charting over two years after the album’s initial release. Nowadays, most albums don’t last 3 months before people have completely lost interest in them. Interest in her follow up album, Stones In The Road, was decidedly more sedate – as was the album, which was probably part of the problem. She famously complained that the record company was always wanting her to deliver another “Down At The Twist & Shout” when I really think that what she was more interested in were the slower, more thoughtful songs that radio didn’t like as much. I feel like she has punished those songs – songs like “I Feel Lucky” but specifically “Down At The Twist & Shout” – for being popular. Nowadays, her albums feature maybe one song that approaches midtempo, but beyond that, there’s little to differentiate one song from the next. I found this to be particularly true about her album Ashes & Roses, an album so same-y that it was the first time I’d been disappointed by one of her albums in nearly 15 years. What I would give for her to write songs like this again – not because I want her to be played on the radio again, but because I want her to feel fun again. As much as I liked her orchestral record Songs From The Movie, I sometimes want to hear her tell a story with a few more beats per minute.
This is not to slag on her ballads and more introspective work. Chapin’s is the brand of bittersweet that I like the best. She saw me through some of my darkest days, days filled with completely uncontrolled anxiety and feelings of complete lack of self-worth. Whenever I need to commune with that part of me, her music takes me there instantly. You’d think I wouldn’t like that feeling, but being able to see it from the vantage point of today, it actually makes me feel oddly at peace.
One final thought on “I Feel Lucky” – I think it would be a killer karaoke song. Sadly, there’s no way I can pull it off because there are just too many references to the singer being female and attempts to change it would feel pretty ridicu.lous. How can you change a lyric like “Dwight Yoakam’s in the corner/Trying to catch my eye/Lyle Lovett’s right beside me/With his hand upon my thigh”? The answer is, you can’t. But maybe I’ll do it someday just to mess with the room