IF WISHES WERE horses, musicians wouldn't have to beg a gig. One of the area's strongest standing sit-in (which is the rock version of the oldest-established-permanent-floating-crap game oxymoron) is the Beggars, an ensemble of temporarily unattached pro-am performers -- too pro to live on open mikes and too financially "am" to quit their day jobs.

The Beggars' frontline is Alice Despard of Hyaa! and B-Time/Driving Wheel brothers Eric and Alan Brace; Carnival of Souls bassist Tom Kane, pedal steel guitarist and built-in bouncer Dave Van Allen and ex-Neighbor and Super Jones Affair drummer John Moremen are block and tackle. And as if to disprove their moniker, they're headlining a full bill of alternative rock for not-too-now people, Sunday at the Birchmere ($6; 549-5919). Ann Borlo & John Moremen open, and the Revellaires stake out the middle ground.

Incidentally, Despard's solo project, the "Alice D" CD, has gotten too little attention. Darkly textured and deliberately angular, it's both fantastic and blunt, the musings of an intelligent, rock-sensible observer -- too strong to be called merely pretty but engaging nevertheless. (If Patti Smith were less statement artist and more observer, this might be what she'd sound like.) Some of "Alice D's" best cuts, "Come On" and "Dylan Cowsleeve," are in the Beggars' repertoire as well; the mandolin and steel resonances should serve her work well.

Meantime, Despard's producer, partner and husband Bill Stewart has left the pillaged BBQ Iguana behind and is setting up shop out in Arlington on Wilson Boulevard near the split at Sears; look for the Rarotonga Rodeo (it's one of the Cook Islands) to open sometime around the middle of September.

REGENERATION GAP: When Doctor Nightlife was in college, all the med school and law school students who were closet pickers used to pack up all the guitars and banjos and sleeping bags, drive into the Smoky Mountains for the James (son of Bill) Monroe Fourth of July bluegrass festival, hook up with the coal miners, play endless renditions of "Salty Dog Rag" and "Fox on the Run" (singing the high tenor harmony in place of the impossible falsetto), hand-crank ice cream, sleep out in the dew, wake up with that blue "smoke" on the slopes and gape and grin over styrofoam-flavored coffee at Monroe or Merle Travis or Doc Watson. And the tailgate bands swelled and swapped members and broke apart and reformed like mercury drops, and everybody was welcome and nobody wore rep ties or name tags or said things like, "Hi, I'm Orville and I'll be your server tonight."

So just do it. Go west, young fans, and grow cool with the country. Instead of crawling east out Route 50 this weekend, watching the fumes curdle and the heat shimmer, drive into the Allegany mountains for the Rocky Gap Country Bluegrass Festival near Cumberland, Md., and remember what it's like to be comfortable in a crowd. You, too, Orville.

First of all, the Cumberland area itself is a relic of history worth pausing over -- a region of onetime railroad shantytowns and miners' gaps near the headlands of the Potomac River that nearly dried up along with the C&O's, canal and railroad. (A walk through Cumberland might pass as a sensitivity retreat designed to help would-be robber barons visualize the other half.) Rocky Gap State Park itself is just to the east of Cumberland, out U.S. 40 after I-70 takes a hard turn toward Pennsylvania around Hancock.

Secondly, there are big names aplenty at the festival, including Johnny Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter (Friday evening); Roy Clark and Ricky Van Shelton (Saturday) and Kathy Mattea and Don Williams (Sunday). It's a participatory weekend -- workshops in banjo, fiddle, accordion, clogging, etc. -- with special children's programs by Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Jamal Koram, Billy B. and Dinosaur Rock. There's a stage featuring traditional acts (lined up with the help of the House of Musical Traditions) such as Clishmaclaver, Magpie and Allons-Y! And you can camp out all weekend in your RV -- and if that's not anti-O.C., I don't know what is.

Tickets are $15 per day ($1 for children under 8) or $40 for a three-day pass. For tickets and information, call 301/724-2511 or 301/724-2540; call for the latter number for RV and camping information, too.

SQUEEZING IN, SQUEEZED OUT: Ticket counts for the big shows this week are getting tight. Friday's Eric Clapton concert at Capital Centre is sold out, but about 700 seats remain for Saturday ($21.50, 432-0200). Although the Bonnie Raitt and Jeff Healey package sold out Wolf Trap last Wednesday, and pavilion seats are gone for the Merriweather Post show on Sunday, you can still get lawn seats ($15; 800/543-3041. The same goes for Reba McEntire at Wolf Trap Sunday night -- no pavilion tickets, but plenty of lawn seats left ($14, 432-0200).

Meanwhile, three other shows are off the slate for this week: Richard Barone (Friday at the 9:30 club), Bob Newhart (Saturday at Merriweather Post) and heavy dinosaur Dio (Tuesday at Patriot Center). Ditto for semi-Deads Bobby (Weir) & the Midnighters at Merriweather Post Aug. 28. Return tickets for all these shows to place of purchase for refunds.

In case you missed it, the Peter Ostroushko and Whiskey Tango show that was to have been Friday at Montgomery Playhouse had to be shifted back to last Thursday at St. Matthew's in Bel Pre; it couldn't be helped, but there it is. If you didn't hear about it, at least don't drive to Gaithersburg -- it's too late.

And yes, life's a beach, boys: That endless summer attraction, the Beach Boys, are actually at Merriweather Post this Tuesday, not last week. In this case, there are not only plenty of $25 seats left in the pavilion, but the lawn seats have been, ahem, discounted to $13.50 (800/543-3041).