Two or three years ago, when Nicolette Larson was first out on the road with Hoyt Axton and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, she learned a hard lesson about self-preservation.

"The first year and a half, I was up all night every night drinking, trying to keep up with the band. You party all night, or go back to somebody's room and sing all night, then you're hoarse the next day and you never catch up.

"After a while you either have to get more and better highs, or you fall apart, or you quit."

So these days, Larson takes her pleasures on the wheel, roller-skating for miles at a time down the hard, flat L.A. beaches with her sleeves pushed up to the elbows and her thigh-length chestnut hair remonstrated into two braids (the skates Linda Ronstadt wears on the cover of "Living in the U.S.A." were a gift from Larson).

Now, amid the faded gentility of her Westbury Hotel room, she holds tight to her midwestern sensibilities. She is unfazed by the livid Manhattan afternoon light, by the washed-out television, the parade of visitors or her slight hoarseness. She has discarded her high boots for a pair of fur-lined moccasins only a mother could love. She plants her elbows in front of her crossed legs and plops her chin into her palms.

"I am trying," she says with mock concentration, "to keep a count-your-blessings attitude."

At 26, Nicolette Larson is waiting in the wigs of the Great Popular Success, like a show which previews well in Philadlphia but wavers in Boston. Her first solo album, unpretentiously titled "Nicolette," is No. 15 in Billboard, and her single, Neil Young's wistful "Lotta Love," is teetering just below the magic top 10 and has already been certified gold. If the next single does well, and her first tour gets good notices, and she gets enough national exposure, she might join the ranks of the few female vocalists making the big bucks. If not... "Well," she says, "I just can't worry about it. I can always sing."

Larson is one of a flock of women -- Bonnie Bramlett, Merry Clayton, Wendy Waldman, Emmylou Harris, Janie Fricke -- who have entered the music business through the studio door, working up from road-tour apprentice to studio-session journeyman. It is no goldbrick road: Harris has built a wide popular audience, but Waldman's albums have not broken through the critics' circle to commercial success.

To Larson, who says she never consciously considered a solo career, singing backup was the logical step. "I wanted to sing, and working backup was a way to do what I wanted to and make money at the same time.

"I never even daydreamed about a Nicolette Larson Record. Not that I didn't think I was capable -- I just thought it was pretty great to be singing backup without the pressure of having to be the host. 'Welcome to the show, thanks for coming out tonight, here's a little number'... All I had to do was sing and shake a tambourine."

But through the arbitrary blessings of radio airplay, Larson is touring a half-dozen major cities (brushing through the University of Maryland tonight) with a band that includes members of Little Feat and the Doobie Brothers, contemplating an offer for her first commercial -- three minutes for Pioneer for $7,500 -- and casting a quizzical glance toward a film future. To get that far, however, she has to navigate a trial by fore at New York's Bottom Line ("I just hope nobody throws anything at me") and a daily schedule of 6 p.m.-to-midnight rehearsals.

Telling this, she graimaces. "There are certain things I don't have control of yet."

Larson grew up in Kansas City, one of six children who lorded it over her siblings when she was promoted to "the adults' choir" in the fifth grade. She attended the University of Missouri at Kansas City for three semesters -- "All I learned in college was that I didn't want to be in college" -- and worked her way through a series of odd jobs, moving to San Francisco in 1974.

"I was the secretary to a construction company, and the alarm clock went off at 7 o'clock. I hated it. If I was destined to be a secretary, I might as well be secretary for a record company or a production company. I mean, I was writing up plastering orders and I didn't care. I felt like I shold at least care about what I was doing."

She took a job with the Golden State Country-Bluegrass Festival, through which she met most of the Bay Area bands and picked up a few local engagements. Late in 1975 she transplanted to Los Angeles and began touring with Axton, then as lead singer for the Lost Planet Airmen.

"I sang lead in the Cody band really our of default, because nobody else could," she shrugs. "I thought, 'If they're gonna let him sing, then I ought to, because I can do better than that.' And I had some seniority in the band."

Back in Los Angles, her reputation as a high-polish sessions singer spread. She worked on albums by Jewwe Colin Young, Steve Goodman and Gary Stewart, and began hanging out with Harris and Ronstadt. When Neil Young heard Ronstadt and Larson together, he immediately dubbed them "The Bullets" and carried them off to Redwood City to record his "Stars 'n' Bars" album.

It was Young who conviced Warner Bros. to sign Larson, snatching her from the jaws of Arista, which had just showcased her at its convention. Then Young borrowed her again, taking her to Nashville to record "Comes a Time" on which she had virtually duet status.

Larson's debut album, recorded last summer, featured Ronstadt vocals by way of endorsement from the Laurel Canyon mafia. Many of the musicians who worked on the Album, including producer Ted Templeman, are on the road with her now.

This time around, she is taking no chances with her voice. She's playing it "conservative," getting plenty of sleep and vitamins. No partying, no singing after hours with friends, no interviews. She is concentrating instead on the last bugaboo of her technique -- stage manner.

"Whenever I get really nervous, I get catatonic. Some people tremble, some stutter, but I just get shocked. It's like, arrrrgggghhh ! But it's better than having your hands shake when you're trying to play guitar."

One other possible problem is style. In a time when even Ronstadt has given up cutoffs for satin cigarette jeans, Larson's natural rumple has given at least one Warnr Bros. staffer some concern.

She blushed slightly. "I just bought a silk shirt," she says in her defense. "And I have this one pair of really tight Sasson jeans that I wear out to dinner because I can't eat a thing. It's my secret diet weapon. And they're in fashion because they're too tight!"

At this fresh evidence of society's eccentricities, she flops backward on the bed, arms outstretched. "And I have to wear heels with them bacause they're too long and I absolutely can't bebothered to shorten them.

"Once I wore high heels on stage, and I'm singing la-la-la and I'm thinking Oh, my feet hurt, never again I'm going to burn these shoes right after the show ..."

Straightening the scarg tied babushka-style around her head, she looks out at an invisible audience and lifts fer chin. "What you see is what you get."