April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

GOOD SOUTHERNER THAT SHE IS, Dixie Carter is extolling the virtues of her native drink. “I love this Classic Coke, though I don’t drink it very often. But I kind of feel wild when I get here to New York,” she says, sipping away in her Manhattan hotel suite. “I do a lot of things I don’t normally do.”

For three weeks this month, Carter, 51, is going wild twice a night at the Café Carlyle, her third annual appearance at the chic Manhattan boîte where Bobby Short normally rules. Wearing a slinky, low-cut black dress, Dixie is shaking and shimmying and even slithering across a piano lid while singing throaty, high-voltage versions of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and a dozen other Broadway and pop standards.

Carter’s chanteuse persona is quite a change from coruscating Julia Sugarbaker, her character for five seasons now on CBS’s Designing Women. But the McLemoresville, Tenn., native is no stranger to either song or New York City. She studied music at Rhodes College in Memphis, then moved to New York City, where further training convinced her she had “a voice more suited to musicals than to opera.” That talent is showcased on DW once or twice a season. “Dixie loves to do it, and we love Dixie,” says Pam Norris, DW’s coexecutive producer.

On the tiny stage at the Café Carlyle, though, Julia Sugarbaker is nowhere to be seen, except for an edge to Carter’s otherwise melting soprano voice when she nails an especially ironic lyric. Nor is there any mention of DW’s tumultuous season—courtesy of castmate Delta Burke’s public battles with the show’s producers—which Carter has just finished out in Los Angeles. For the record, “Delta Dawn” is not on Dixie’s song list.

On this particular Sunday afternoon, it is two days before Carter’s opening, and she is nervous. “I don’t take this new [cabaret] career for granted,” she says. “It’s all the world for me, so I try just as hard as I can.”

During a rehearsal, she consults husband Hal (Evening Shade) Holbrook. “Hal Holbrook, what do you think about ‘In Love in Vain’? ” she asks. Or, vamping on the piano, “Mr. Hal Holbrook, are you looking?”

“That looks very, very lovely,” Mr. Hal Holbrook reassures her.

“Dixie always gets so nervous that everyone around her gets nervous,” says Holbrook, 66. “Then she gets out onstage and she’s calm as a cucumber and has so much fun.”

Minutes later, Carter flashes the tambourine she shakes and the harmonica she plays during Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine).” “You’re going to see a middle-aged woman make a big fool of herself,” she drawls, “but I think it’s gonna work.”

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