She had long, silky blond hair back then as she remembers it, "very, very long hair" that tumbled down her back and stopped just above the knee. She liked her hair. She did not like what it came to represent.

"Sing 'Big Yellow Taxi'!" the audience would shout when she stepped into the single beam of light with her acoustic guitar, sporting that Joni Mitchell-Judy Collins hair. "Play 'Both Sides Now'! " She'd say nothing, though her blood pressure was skyrocketing, then launch into her own contemporary compositions.

"It shattered me," says Washington musician Mary Chapin Carpenter. "I wasn't very happy doing what I was doing."

Ten years later, Carpenter is still fielding requests for folk anthems. But what a difference a decade makes. Now, requests for "Hometown Girl" and "Just Because" -- her own songs, brooding ballads that defy categorization -- are also tossed up from the dark.

Those who heard Carpenter's husky, biting alto in the early days say they knew she'd eventually be big. Sure enough, CBS Record Division executives signed her this year after one quick listen to her first demo, and now they're pushing her first album, "Hometown Girl," on the cover of Billboard, no less.

Tonight and tomorrow, Carpenter admits, when she strides onstage for concerts at the Birchmere in Alexandria, she'll be thinking about the hype, hoping she can live up to the expectations it creates. But she insists it won't change her performance or her life.

"I will not," she says emphatically, "wear sequins."

Tuning up to rehearse with her six-member band at a hall in Kensington, Carpenter wears jeans, an olive blouse that washes out her skin, and an air of humility.

"I know I have this record deal, but materially nothing has changed. I still have my day job. I have to make my rent like everybody else," she says minutes later.

She puffs on her third Merit of the hour, nervous talking about herself. "What I've always wanted is just a solid career of being able to play music," she says. "It was an honest goal."

And a difficult one, especially in Washington. It is very easy, she says, to remain anonymous here. Local music careers are "like restaurants. A million restaurants open up here every year, and only two or three survive."

Dick Cerri, producer-host of "Music Americana," a folk-based radio show celebrating its silver anniversary this year, had a strong gut reaction to the girl with the long blond hair and guitar with herringbone trim. He first saw Carpenter in 1983 at the "Music Americana" showcase at the Birchmere. "We all knew that she'd become a big favorite, judging from the audience's reaction that night," he says. "With Mary, it was always just a question of when. Everybody I've talked to in the music business is saying the same thing."

Carpenter's musical odyssey began when she was just out of her Dr. Dentons. Her discovery that she had a voice, a talent, is a tale she tells with glee. Her eyes light up, her hands -- the nails are all different lengths -- rest quietly in her lap. She doesn't smoke for at least 10 minutes.

"It was a result of having to compete {to see} who could be the loudest," she says of her voice. "There were four girls in my family, all within two to three years of each other, and every one of us liked something different. My older sister liked classical stuff, my middle sister like musical comedy, and my younger sister liked rock 'n' roll.

"When I was really young, I used to listen to whatever was available. I had a little Sears turntable and I'd borrow my older sister's albums, the ones she didn't care about. She'd keep the Motown, all the good stuff, but she had this Judy Collins record. I remember, it's all very clear. I was about 10 years old and she {Collins} had just come out with 'Wildflowers.' I fell in love with that record. I'd play it all the time."

Born in New Jersey, Carpenter moved to Washington as a child. Her youth, as she remembers it, was ordinary. "I liked to scream and yell and go fast in a car, but I always made it home okay," she says. But in her late teens she hit the local club circuit, where patrons of the alternative music scene came to love her and her moody, introspective songs of romance, back streets and bars.

Carpenter's current musical tastes remain for the most part rooted in the past; she admits to a recent spree during which she purchased the latest Steve Winwood and Paul Simon albums. The older music, she says, emphasized the lyric and message. She wrote or cowrote every song on her album. The title song exemplifies her subtle, sometimes cryptic style.

"That song is a lament for uncomplicated living," she says. "It's a look back at the way I used to look at love. It was a lot easier. I think that we all have one relationship in our life where we are forever changed. When it ends, you become more cynical, more unhappy. 'Hometown Girl' isn't about my hometown, but about my innocence."

Innocence, as a feeling and state of being, shows up on her album a lot, which is misleading. Carpenter is not innocent. But she is not hard either. She is simply informed -- talking about the pitfalls of fame, for example, even before she's actually achieved it.

"Unfortunately for her," Carpenter says of Joan Baez, the '60s icon who has recently experimented with '80s mainstream music, "her audience pegged her, not allowing her to remain current ... There's a snobbery involved in people who stay exactly the same and don't branch out.

"I was having a conversation with someone recently who was bemoaning the fact that Judy Collins didn't have a strong desire to go out and do all the old stuff. A lot of people sort of look down on her, I think. They lament the fact that she's into show tunes. But I see her as just growing with life and exploring new things and finding she has great liking for new things."

She pauses for a moment, a longhaired folkie no more, then smiles and concludes the thought.

"All the power to her," she says, rubbing her right thumbnail with her right index finger, eyeing her guitar. "All the power to her."