John Jennings, a music producer and blues and folk guitarist who helped launch the career of the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, died Oct. 16 at a hospice center in Rockville, Md. He was 61.
The cause was kidney cancer, said Tamara Meyer, his companion of 17 years.
Mr. Jennings played the drums, bass, keyboard and not least the guitar — acoustic, electric, slide, lap, steel or baritone. “He could play anything,” Carpenter said in an e-mail, “and his knowledge, talent and supreme great taste informed everything he did.”
Mr. Jennings, who released a half-dozen solo albums, left his most enduring mark as a producer. He worked on albums for singer-songwriters including John Gorka, Iris Dement, Janis Ian and the Indigo Girls. For Carpenter, he produced and performed on at least eight albums and 11 top-10 singles, and he received a Grammy Award nomination for record of the year for co-producing “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” (1993).
Mr. Jennings was introduced to Carpenter in 1982 through frontman Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band, which had rocketed to fame with the song “Afternoon Delight.”
Carpenter had moved to Washington eight years earlier. Mr. Jennings was writing and recording commercial jingles after stints with local rock bands Rent’s Due and Big Yankee Dollar. The pair dated before realizing they worked better aesthetically than romantically. They played shows at local cafes, and Mr. Jennings encouraged the shy Carpenter to stop relying on covers and perform her own songs, which blended folk and country styles.
“He had a studio in his basement, and I’d start going over there on the weekends and diddling around,” Carpenter told the New York Times in 1993. “That’s the way John is. John is like, ‘Let’s do it.’ He doesn’t see hurdles. I see hurdles.”
The collaboration led to “Hometown Girl,” Carpenter’s debut under Columbia Records in 1987. Its folksy sound and long-running tunes never found a place on mainstream country radio, but Carpenter broke through with “State of the Heart” (1989) and “Shooting Straight in the Dark” (1990), up-tempo follow-ups that mixed country and pop. Both were co-produced with Mr. Jennings.
“Down at the Twist and Shout,” a single from “Shooting Straight,” became Carpenter’s first Grammy-winning track. She has since sold more than 12 million records.
Mr. Jennings’s solo debut, “Buddy,” was released by Vanguard records in 1997. This and later albums had limited sales but received widespread acclaim.
Reviewing “It’s All Good” (2001), Mr. Jennings’s third solo record, music critic Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post that “the songs don’t attract attention so much as insinuate themselves, like a minor key blues or ancient Celtic air.”
Mr. Jennings said he was happy to see Carpenter make it big but never sought the same level of fame for himself. “While I want to be successful, it’s not something I’m going to go out of my way for,” he told The Washington Post in 1997. “I don’t really see it for me.”
He continued: “Had it not been for Chapin, my life would be very different. I’d like to think that, had it not been for me, hers would have been very different, too.”
John Edward Jennings was born in Harrisonburg, Va., on Nov. 22, 1953. He was about 10 when his father died, and he mostly grew up in the nearby Shenandoah Valley town of Luray. He was raised by his mother, who worked for the National Park Service, and a grandmother and aunt.
Carpenter’s early song “Family Hands” reflected on Mr. Jennings’s early years:
Raised by the women who are stronger than you know
A patchwork quilt of memory only women could have sewn
The threads were stitched by family hands, protected from the moth
By your mother and her mother, the weavers of your cloth
Mr. Jennings was based in the Washington area throughout his career and had lived with Meyer in Potomac, Md., since 1998. The pair were nearly killed in 2003 when a rotting oak tree fell on their vehicle as they were driving home from a movie. Besides Meyer, survivors include a brother.
After Mr. Jennings was diagnosed with cancer in spring 2014, a benefit concert was held at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club. Almost $75,000 was raised through a crowdfunding site to pay for his medical expenses.
A seventh solo album was unfinished at the time of Mr. Jennings’s death, although one song, “I Believe Love Will Save My Life,” had been released. In an interview with WUSA-TV, Mr. Jennings said he began writing the song after his illness was diagnosed. “I thought I knew something about love before people started helping me,” he said. “I was wrong.”