Joan Armatrading named her 20th album "This Charming Life," the perfect title to sum up her lifetime of accomplishments. Arriving at the Birchmere direct from a European tour that began in March, she overflows with joy and the assurance that her expressive guitar, soothing voice and heartfelt lyrics touch everyone. Although she plays all instruments except drums, she is bringing along a bassist and a keyboardist along with a drummer.

The St. Kitts native was a teenager in Birmingham, England, when a guitar in a pawn shop window caught her fancy. Her father had kept his guitar on the topmost shelf of the storage place away from her prying hands, piquing her curiosity all the more. Three pounds seemed like a steep price for the guitar in the window, but Joan's mother was sympathetic and suggested that she ask the shopkeeper if he would trade the guitar for two strollers. The deal was completed, sending the 14-year-old on a career filled with firsts.

Armatrading was the first female U.K. artist and the first black U.K. artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Blues chart. She was the first female UK artist and first black UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category. And she was also the first artist from St. Kitts to debut at No. 1 on the Billboards blues chart and the first artist from St. Kitts nominated for a Grammy.

"Think of a guitarist, and it probably is one I've admired along the way," she said. "I began playing and writing music when my mother bought a piano as a piece of furniture. I can remember going to it, polishing it and being completely taken by it. Once you start to write, you realize this is what you want to do. After getting the guitar, I focused on it. Both parents were encouraging and just left me to it."

If you go Joan Armatrading Where: The Birchmere, Alexandria When: 7:30 p.m. July 8 and 9 Info: $55; 703-549-7500;

"This Charming Life" has the thoughtful variety of styles and stories we always expect from Armatrading. Her voice and guitar artistry beautifully express the vast range of her feelings, from sad to joyous. The sorrowful content of "Two Tears" and "Cry" and the optimism of "Heading Back to New York City," "Best Dress On" and the title song reflect the range of emotions she conveys so deftly in each song she crafts. "No matter how happy you are, sometimes you have to cry if things don't work out the way you hope," she said. "After trying a new bass guitar with a rich sound I thought would work in this album, I abandoned it and used one from the 1980s. I remastered it three times until I ended up with the exact sound I was after. When I write, the song takes itself where it wants to go. I like to create words that have a meaning and are coming from an experience or something of value."

Armatrading cherishes her many gold, platinum and silver recordings, the MBE received from Queen Elizabeth, meeting Nelson Mandela and performing the song she wrote in his honor, and her five honorary degrees from British universities. But she holds dearest the Bachelor of Arts, Honors, in history that she earned from Open University after five years of study.

"I left school to help out my family, and since I'm doing stuff, this seemed like important stuff to complete to the end," she said. "Without history, we wouldn't be where we are. Once you start to write music, you realize that music itself has a long history. What we listen to today owes its existence to all that went before and how we teach each other. The situations people are in today around the world happened because of history.

"It's all about education. When I went to Africa, I saw girls who needed education. Comfort Rwanda, one of my favorite charities, has already helped 600,000 students who tend to stay in their own villages and become the important people who matter, like nurses, doctors and teachers. That's why I want my audiences to learn my songs and take their messages to heart."