FIRST THE GOOD NEWS: Mary Chapin Carpenter's much awaited and aptly titled album "Hometown Girl" is just what her fans ordered. Listeners already acquainted with Carpenter will find her singing and songwriting talents confirmed here.
The bad news is that a lot of country music fans are likely to find her songs a tad refined.
Of course, the bad news would be easy to dismiss if Carpenter weren't signed to a major label, where popularity counts. Like Kate Wolf, Karla Bonoff and so many other fine songwriters spurned by major labels, Carpenter specializes in introspective ballads. Her songs tend to be rich in imagery and detail. Ironic twists ("A Lot Like Me") and unabashed sentiment ("Family Hands") don't put her off. Nor do confessional ballads like the album's title track. Clear and affecting, her voice is nicely served by John Jennings' crystalline production and similarly tasteful contributions by numerous local musicians, including keyboardist Jon Carroll and singer/harmonica player Jonathan Edwards. (Fiddler Mark O'Connor and guitarist Tony Rice also drop in.)
Yet even with catchy, upbeat country tunes like "A Road Is Just a Road," "Hometown Girl" seems too personal, wordy and intimate to attract the kind of widespread support that budding major label artists need to find quickly. Here's hoping that Carpenter gets a chance to build the audience she deserves.
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER -- "Hometown Girl" (Columbia BFC 40758). Appearing Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere.