ON HIS NEW album "By Heart," Bryan Bowers tells of a woman who called a club where he was appearing one night. "What does he play?" she asked. "Autoharp," she was told. After a long pause, the woman finally broke the silence. "Auto parts?" she said.

If the autoharp isn't quite as well-known as it should be, you can't blame Bowers. Almost single-handedly, he's resurrected the instrument from Carter Family antiquity and placed it in a contemporary but tradition-oriented setting.

"By Heart" is a case in point. Filled with warmth and humor and more than its share of memorable songs, the album is a fine example of how Bowers has overcome the inherent limitations of what once was dubbed the "idiot zither." In Bowers' hands, the autoharp rings out in three distinctive octaves, and as the instrumentals "I'll Fly Away" and "Shady Grove" attest, rythmic, melodic and harmonic functions are tied together seamlessly.

Elsewhere, the music, much of it rooted in the Appalachian tradition, is further enhanced by Bowers' sensitive vocals, some splendid bluegrass and gospel harmonies on "Zen Gospel Singing" and Bowers' hand-picked session mates.

In fact, the contributions by The Seldom Scene, Sam Bush and Stephen Wade (of "Banjo Dancing") may be worth the purchase price alone.

BRYAN BOWERS -- "By Heart" (Flying Fish FF 313); appearing Friday at The Barns of Wolf Trap.