Bob Carpenter’s “Silent Passage” Is Heard Again

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Admirers of the 1970s folk scene may already be familiar with Bob Carpenter, although he wasn’t on my radar until the August reissue of Silent Passage, his 1974 debut album.

Not to be confused with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member of the same name, Carpenter was a Canadian singer-songwriter who found some good luck early in his career — meeting the right people at the right time — and landed a contract with Warner Bros Records at a time when folk music was finding a mainstream audience.

Reading about his life now, though, my heart breaks a little bit. He wasn’t completely onboard with producer Brian Ahern’s arrangements of Silent Passage and decided to wait out his contract by working as a housepainter. But when that time came, folk had fallen out of favor and he pretty much lived in obscurity. Even though 30,000 vinyl LPs were ready to ship, they were melted down, and the project didn’t see the light of day for another decade.

Today, his subdued style reminds me of somebody like Ray LaMontagne in the Trouble era or even Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy in his mellower moments. The nautical references in the album’s title track come naturally, as Carpenter served in the Navy for a year before being discharged for stealing a radio. He also drifted from city to city for his remaining years, which makes the lyrics about traveling and coming home more poignant.

Carpenter died in 1995 after distancing himself from the music world — and his family — by embarking on a spiritual pursuit he hoped would take him around the world. However, just before departing, he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. On his deathbed, he took vows to become a Buddhist monk, one of his life goals. Because he could no longer speak, he had to squeeze his hand to communicate his understanding. A silent passage, indeed.

Take a moment to listen to Bob Carpenter’s “Silent Passage.” It’ll remind you of a simpler time, if not necessarily a happier one. By the way, that’s Emmylou Harris on sterling harmony.

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