Just a few years ago, Mary-Chapin Carpenter was a staple on the respected Washington, D.C., folk scene, the launching pad for Emmylou Harris, among others. Freshly graduated from Brown University with a degree in American civilization, she found herself in the early Eighties rattling around the capital mope scene, strumming covers ranging from Billie Holiday to Fats Waller to James Taylor in smoky Washington clubs like the Birchmere, Gallagher's, and Food for Thought, where she played for tips. A daytime gig as a grants consultant for an arts organization kept her bills paid.

When CBS signed her in 1987 and issued her debut Hometown Girl, the serious-minded Carpenter paid heed to the old showbiz caveat: She didn't give up her day job.

"I was scared at quitting," Carpenter concedes in a phone interview from her D.C. home. "There's no guarantee that you will succeed. A record deal doesn't mean you are set for life. People still register shock at that reality."

Certainly, Hometown Girl wasn't the jackpot that would liberate her from the grind of working days and playing nights. The ballad-laden LP, while widely lauded by critics, National Public Radio stations and college kids, sold just 20,000 units. It did, however, accomplish two things. In addition to gaining her a spot as an opening act for such out-of-the-mainstream country stars as Emmylou Harris, the Desert Rose Band, and Merle Haggard, the album exposed the folksinger's elegantly earthy songwriting abilities. Shortly after the release of her second album State of the Heart and the three chartmakers from the LP--"How Do," "Never Had It So Good," and "Quittin' Time"--the giant songwriting factory SBK signed the Princeton, New Jersey, native.

"It was the greatest feeling, pure validation," the normally reticent Carpenter exclaims. "It was somebody telling you, `We believe in what you're doing.' I'm very proud of the writing deal."

The compact allowed Carpenter to finally--albeit grudgingly--give up her day job.

On the other hand, Carpenter admits, it is reassuring to have that steady job. And it doesn't bother the brainy artist that her bread is amply buttered by Nashville.

"I'm flabbergasted and pleased to be embraced by country radio. The thing about country music is that it is composed of really good songs, not just the pedal steel or a cowboy hat. It is a tradition of songs that mean something. [Songwriter] Guy Clark is a poet. Do me a favor," says Carpenter, warming to the subject, "put on a Marshall Crenshaw album, then segue into a Foster and Lloyd. We're talking a state of mind, not just accessories."

But Carpenter's stubbornly individualistic brand of balladry does stick out among country's traditional-oriented masses. And how long the honeymoon lasts before bowing to irreconcilable differences could be the subject for an office pool. Like the eccentric k.d. lang, there's the possibility she might sing herself off country radio's conservative playlists. Even her resounding success at the Country Music Association awards hootenanny, where she stole the show with "You Don't Know Me, I'm the Opening Act," might have miffed some pompadour'd Nashville power brokers. A roundhouse punch at the business' puffed and haughty headliners, the number produced a standing ovation. It wasn't the sort of "get along, go along" thing they're used to down 'round Tennessee. Yet Carpenter wasn't concerned with ruffling feathers at the time, just with battling a nagging case of stage fright.

"I was scared to death. I thought I was going to crumble. It wasn't my choice of song. It was the producers'. I was nothing short of astounded at the response."

Carpenter would seem to need all the positive exposure she can scrape up for the country-music long run. Her new album, the splendid and sultry Shooting Straight in the Dark, is a far cry from the sort of stuff spinning on C&W stations. Carpenter possesses a cool and creamy alto that can produce the purest lament, like the lovely "What You Didn't Say," or boil up the bayou, as on the Cajunesque "Down at the Twist and Shout." But don't expect the independent-minded Carpenter to kowtow to the bola-tied brass along Music Row. With her day job an ever-fading memory, Carpenter concludes, "Nobody makes me do anything I don't want to do."

Mary-Chapin Carpenter will perform at Scottsdale Center for the Arts on Sunday, December 2. Showtime is 7 p.m.

"Country music is composed of really good songs, not just a cowboy hat. We're talking a state of mind, not just accessories.


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