Carpenter Changes Notion of `Country'

MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER is a good example of why country music is no longer for honky-tonkers only. The three-time Grammy winner has wooed listeners both inside and outside the country fold with her evocative folk- and rock-leaning songs - and thankfully, she shows no signs of changing her successful style.

Carpenter's fifth and latest album, ``Stones In the Road,'' is full of folksy, introspective ballads and is perhaps her least country-influenced effort to date. But fans continue to be pleased by her nontraditional offerings: Only weeks after its release, the new album is No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Album list, No. 15 on the list of all top-selling albums, and has already sold a million copies.Adding sound to the fury, the singer-songwriter is making her way across the United States in a brief acoustic tour, which began recently in Boston. In front of a sellout crowd at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, Carpenter played most of the songs from ``Stones In the Road,'' plus her hits, ``He Thinks He'll Keep Her,'' ``Passionate Kisses,'' and ``I Feel Lucky.''

But the new songs were the main focus of the 90-minute show. Carpenter opened with ``This Is Love,'' which, with its positive reflections on true affection, was soon tempered by a fetching version of ``The Last Word,'' an emotional song about the end of a relationship. Equally good was her delivery of the album's promising first single and only up-tempo tune, ``Shut Up and Kiss Me.''

Carpenter's writing ability - honed during her college years at Brown University in Providence, R.I. - shone through in ``John Doe No. 24,'' which invents a past for a homeless, deaf, and blind man who was found in Illinois in 1945, and whose obituary Carpenter read in the New York Times last year.

For the album's title track, a thoughtfully-composed tribute to childhood, Carpenter combined her soothing alto vocals with descriptions of events from her youth carefree school days, John Kennedy's funeral. Moving easily between new and old material, Carpenter kept up the pace with the 1992 songs ``The Hard Way,'' ``I Take My Chances,'' and a witty encore, ``Girls With Guitars.''

The show's acoustic format recalls Carpenter's days playing coffeehouses in the Washington area (where she still lives). At the Wang Center, she spoke often to the audience and had a chummy rapport with guitarist and longtime co-producer John Jennings and pianist John Carroll. Carpenter will begin a full-band tour next year.

* Carpenter's current tour: Oakland, Calif. (Nov. 11); Austin, Texas (Nov. 12); St. Louis (Nov. 13); Cleveland (Nov. 16); Chicago (Nov. 17); Nashville (Nov. 18 ,19); Atlanta (Nov. 21).

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