Mary Chapin Carpenter Charms Outdoor Crowd At Biltmore Estate

Singer unveils 10 new songs in North Carolina lawn concert.

In one of her few shows this summer, Mary Chapin Carpenter kept the outdoors-on-the-lawn crowd in stitches Saturday at Asheville, N.C.'s Biltmore Estate.

"Welcome to my summer home," she quipped as she gestured toward the 250-room mansion.

Carpenter hasn't been in the public eye much lately because of her "mental health summer," as she called it, but she seemed genuinely tickled to be entertaining the array of folks in folding chairs.

She chattered and joked as much as sang on this second night of a two-night engagement. At one point she said that she's recently become enamored of the Backstreet Boys and then announced she's got the perfect song to pitch to the boy band, a sweet-as-sugar number called "The Loving Thing." Sure enough, it had an infectious melody and numerous vocal step-outs that'd be perfect for the Backstreet Boys.

Along with such favorites as "Passionate Kisses" (RealAudio excerpt) and "The Hard Way" and a boogie-woogie take on "Down at the Twist and Shout" (RealAudio excerpt), Carpenter included 10 new songs in her two-hour set. And even though it's been four years since her last studio album, it's clear that Carpenter has not lost her incisive writing skill.

For example, in one of the evening's more somber moments, she recounted the tale of meeting an ex-boyfriend in an airport 15 years after he broke her heart. Her first instinct was to flee, but after they talked a bit, she said she was "overjoyed" to see him again. Just before she started "Swept Away," the song inspired by the encounter, she noted, "Time does wondrous things when you give it a chance." You could hear the crickets chirping in the grass when she sang glimmering lines such as "I am falling slowly backwards/ Into your famous last words."

In the middle of the set, she also took two requests, for $500 apiece. She even abandoned a rendition of "I Take My Chances" to banter with the bidders. (All donations were given to a fund benefiting Cambodian women, who weave scarves that Carpenter sells at her shows, with those proceeds returned to Cambodia.) Then she sped through the lyrics until she recovered exactly where she left off, much to the audience's delight.

"I'm so flustered, I can't stand it!" she crowed. "I better behave or they're gonna kick me off the island!"

A five-song encore brought several standing ovations, but none more enthusiastic than after "The Diva Song," a hilarious stab at ubiquitous pop queens. Looking terrific in a red blouse, blue jeans and long-again blond hair, Carpenter proved to be more down to earth than anyone she lampooned, which was all in fun, of course.