A City Woman Takes Up Those Country Tunes

COUNTRY music ain't just about "drinkin' and cheatin no more. That's the lowdown from singer Mary-Chapin Carpenter, who, among other young performers, is putting a hip, contemporary stamp on country music's cowboy image.Though still playing second fiddle to established favorites like Randy Travis and the Judds, a new generation of singers is snatching up both country and pop listeners: Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Ms. Carpenter, and others. They will be a strong presence among the luminaries spotlighted tomorrow night at the 25th Annual Country Music Association Awards (CBS-TV, 9 p.m. EST), broadcast live from the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. Country music has broadened in its appeal, thanks to increasing numbers of break-the-mold acts from Nashville and mainstream pop artists like Bonnie Raitt and Chris Isaak who don't hide their cowboy boots and accents. Last week, Garth Brooks became the first country act to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's top 200 albums chart - pushing out heavy metal band Metallica. Young urban professionals, searching for that perfect mix of nostalgia and trendiness, are cocking their ears to country music's singable melo dies and new "sophisticated" lyrics. Nominated this year for CMA's Horizon Award, Carpenter is a wholesome-faced songwriter from Washington D.C. who seems to like Cajun ditties as much as rock-and-roll. Her ballads, backed by meandering piano lines and rich acoustic guitar work, would please the staunchest folk-music lover or even a New Age fan. "There's not a stereotyped country music artist or country music listener anymore," says Carpenter, who has produced three albums on the Columbia label. Her latest, "Shooting Straight in the Dark," has been on Billboard's top country albums chart for 47 weeks. "There's still a certain amount of reliance in country music on the horrible cliches of drinking and cheating," Ms. Carpenter says in a phone interview. But there are growing amounts of music "dealing with real people and real situations," she adds. Carpenter's own lyrics range from discussing the complexities of romance, to literary allusions to Eudora Welty, to reflections on the ups and downs of being a single working woman. The song "Middle Ground," which Carpenter says is based somewhat on her own life and that of her sister's, is a humorous ode to the white-collar "grind." "I was trying very hard not to write the theme song to 'thirtysomething,' but at the same time, I couldn't ignore some of the realities of [my sister's] life and mine," Carpenter says. If she wins the Horizon Award, which honors performers showing "significant creative growth and development," it probably won't equal the plaudits she got at last year's ceremony: She was called in at the last minute to perform "Opening Act," her rib-poking song about the trials of being the one who always "opens" for headliners. On live national television, she got a standing ovation. This year has been a banner year for Carpenter with hit songs and sold-out performances at major US festivals like the Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Va., and the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. Born in Princeton, N.J., raised in Washington, and educated at Brown University, Carpenter seems an unlikely candidate for a country music career. "It all depends on what you think country music is," she says. "I don't think where you grow up or where you went to college has anything to do with it.... I've had people say to me, 'Gosh! You're from Washington, D.C. What are you doing playing country music?' As if the only people who live here work for the government!" One of Carpenter's most high-powered hits has been "Down at the Twist and Shout," a rowdy Cajun-flavored salute to an old-time dance hall in Bethesda, Md., where Carpenter used to go to hear country bands perform. The more pop-flavored "You Win Again," however, pushes the light-hearted stomping aside for a driving beat, electric guitar licks, and Carpenter's clear-toned alto pleadings. Carpenter says country music has changed enough within the last five years so that she doesn't feel she has "to fit some sort of mold." "I've really been able to do what I've wanted to do," she says "and not feel like it's being rejected."

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