by Dwain Hebda
Lance Carpenter didn’t catch the “go” sign from the bartender following a Nashville set once, and the oversight put him right in the path of a barfly who’d been laying for him all night. What followed next still cracks up the Ozark-born singer-songwriter.
“I was playing The Commodore (bar), and I was walking out and there was a gentleman at the bar who had been there probably about four or five beers too long,” Carpenter says. “Apparently, this guy was wanting to talk to me. He stopped me and basically looked at me and was pretty close to my face. He says, ‘Do you know who you are?’ He said that about 10 or 12 times, and I just kind of laughed and said, ‘I’ll bite. Who am I?’
“He said, ‘If Toby Keith and Blake Shelton had a baby, you’d be their boy.’ I bought that guy a beer and sat down and had a beer with him.”
It wasn’t so much the comparison to two country superstars that tickled Carpenter’s ribs and opened his wallet, but the plainspoken manner in which the dude laid it on him. As a guy whose reputation was made on good songwriting, Carpenter is nothing if not a sucker for a great line.
“There’s a lot of current songs out there right now by hit artists that just — I call it throwing a bucket full of verbs and bucket full of nouns in a blender and pushing start. How it falls out is how they sing it,” he says. “It’s very visual and very descriptive, but it doesn’t move me. It’s something I can hear and understand and, all of a sudden, three minutes of my life is gone.”
“I like the ones that when someone asks, ‘Hey, tell me what you’ve heard this year that you loved?’ You can instantly go to a song like ‘The House that Built Me’ and tell them 15 reasons why that song means something to you. I try to bring that to every song.”
For more than a decade, Carpenter has been fashioning just those kinds of rhythmic tales, telling stories as he lives them and things as he sees them on the state of the heart, where he’s from, cold beer, where the country is going. He doesn’t think there’s anything remarkable about his voice, but then, there isn’t anything remarkable about a lot of voices that paint a picture with every word.
“When I’m writing songs, I always try to focus on being conversational because I’ve always loved the story songs,” Carpenter says. “I started out my career in songwriting making up stories. I love artists like Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw who can sing a song, and they become the character of the song, even though you know that probably didn’t happen to them in real life. They take a song that some songwriter created, and they just embody that character.
“I’ve got a project that I’m about to put out next year that I can’t really say a whole lot about, where there are a few songs on it that are completely distant from me. They’re not stories I’ve lived, they’re not people I know, but I wrote them as if I was a person that knew their story. I hope that the audience hears these songs and are like, ‘Oh gosh, this song’s about me. How did you write that?’”
Such nuances in his music and his message were light-years away when Carpenter first stepped behind a microphone. He was living a dream job, traveling the country coordinating disaster relief, a gig that took him from Hurricane Katrina to the aftermath of tornadoes, wildfires and the like.
“I was traveling with FEMA, and I would take a guitar or I would buy a guitar anywhere I went, and I would play,” he says. “I would write stories, and it just kind of came natural. It was always something I did as a therapy.
“In 2007, I was in Maine working. I had a buddy who played an acoustic gig at a bar every Tuesday night. He invited me up to play a couple of songs on his break one time and I said, ‘Man I’ve never played in public. I’ve fiddled around in the lobby of a hotel, but I’ve not done, like, in front of a crowd.’ He goes, ‘You’ll be fine. Do it.’
“I dropped my pick three times on the first song, so that tells you how nervous I was. That’s a true story. I had to stop, bend down, pick it up. You know, now I keep one on my mic stand at all times just in case I drop one, because of that story. I got back to the hotel that night, and I did a little songwriting because I wanted to write a better song.”
Carpenter found an online program through the Nashville-based National Songwriters Association International (NSAI), which he leveraged via online courses and songwriting camps. He received so much moral and artistic support through these outlets, he’s returning the favor now by mentoring young performers.
“In Nashville, there’s a phrase that goes around that says, ‘You’ve got to sound like a whole lot of other people before you figure out what you sound like.’ That’s true,” he says. “You’ll get compared, but imitation is the highest form of flattery. I’ve had so many people compare me to so many different artists. I never take that as a shot or anything less than a compliment.
“I mentor a lot of songwriters and artists now, and I tell them to find those artists that they relate to and that they feel like they’re in the same sonic range as. Cover their songs and let their songs learn their voice. Over time, your experiences will be the stories and the way you shape your voice. I tell people, ‘If you want to learn to write, write. If you want to learn to sing, sing.’”
These are heady times for any native Arkansan in the music business, so fertile has the Natural State proven for country music talent. Carpenter says he’s proud to be part of that decorated roster.
“I’m so proud to be from Arkansas. I was born and raised there, and I’ll be ‘woo pig sooie’ until the day that I die,” he says. “To see people like Ashley McBryde, Adam Hambrick, Matt Stell, Justin Moore, Hugh Sanders, Joe Nichols — it’s amazing to see the talent that comes out and to see all the writers that come to Nashville to write all of these songs for these major label artists. To be one of them is incredible.
“At my age and my point in my career, I have been blessed to be on Toby Keith’s label and have a song go to major radio and do a major radio tour to get a chance to be out there for a while. I’m an independent artist, and I won’t get that same mainstream radio play that others do, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to have the success that they do. My success will look different, in a different time.”