I get very, very nervous,'' Mary Chapin Carpenter says of performing. ''I have to do breathing exercises and concentrate really hard. It's like a terrible stage fright that happens out of the blue. But there always comes a point in the show where I'm not feeling self-conscious anymore.''
From the outside looking in (one of the titles from her new, No. 1 country album, Stones in the Road), Carpenter shouldn't feel self-conscious about anything. At 36, she's already won three Grammys for the sometimes rollicking, sometimes mournful tunes that have made her the first preppy to conquer country music. But while her big-haired, up-from-nowhere rivals Wynonna, Reba, even Trisha can look back on tough times and revel in their hard-won success, the Ivy League-educated Carpenter's view of stardom remains angst-filled. ''I feel like I came real late to the party,'' she says. ''Stones is about the sorrow I feel that we've forgotten our commitment to more than just material possessions. And it's about me trying to figure out what I've missed.''
Professionally, Carpenter hasn't missed much. Since the modest debut of 1987's Hometown Girl, her soulful, folkie country rock has grown in popularity with each of her five new releases. She's also been embraced by Nashville from the start, despite remaining a steadfast resident of the Washington, D.C., area. But her darker songs about love and loneliness reflect her personal life Carpenter lives alone and has never married and have made her a spokes-singer for the thirtysomething single woman.
Those sentiments are everywhere in Stones. In one song she writes about ''watching them walk hand in hand and my eyes just want to linger/on those golden wedding bands wrapped around their fingers.'' Still, sitting in the rustic living room of her modest Alexandria, Va., apartment, dressed down in old jeans and a sweater, Carpenter insists that her lyrics are not the typical laments of the postmodern spinster. ''If anything, I think I fear that [marriage] is not going to take away the loneliness. And then I'm going to go, 'What the f--- do I do now?'''
What, indeed. Sometimes Carpenter can be so serious it's hard to believe she's behind such upbeat rockabilly anthems like ''Shut Up and Kiss Me.'' ''She's incredible fun all we do is crack jokes,'' says her friend Joan Baez, who recorded Carpenter's ''Stones'' for her own album last year. ''But she's very private and has a hard time with the public side of fame.''
After a disastrous appearance on an Australian morning show two years ago, in which Carpenter's stage fright caused her to ''blank out'' during a song and then burst into tears off camera, she has learned not to be shy about asking for TelePrompTers when performing live. Now if she could only resolve some of her issues closer to home. After a brief romance with her collaborator, John Jennings, and several other relationships, Carpenter worries about the ticking clock and missing out on having a family of her own. ''I worry about it in a sort of, hmm, okay, it's-getting-there sort of way,'' she says softly. ''But I have a few more years to obsess about it. I don't want to grow old by myself, but I also believe that if it's going to happen, it will. I can't force it.''