Johnny Cash -- and later his admirers, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan -- developed a flat, narrowranged vocal style that accentuated the toughened realism of his lyrics. Unfortunately many people mistook the nasal, dramatic delivery for poor singing. Worse yet, many singer-songwriters concluded that if the lyrics were poetic, then it didn't matter how badly they were sung.

Victims of this misconception have included, Charlie Daniels, John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Paycheck, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe and Hank Williams Jr. The latter three have just released albums that show they still don't know the difference between understated delivery and sloppy singing.

"To the Bone" (Columbia JZ 36885) presents Kristofferson at his worst and at his best. On the one hand, his voice sounds like sandpaper rubbed against a blackboard by an arthritic hand. On the other hand, he has writen some of the best songs of an already impressive career.

All 10 songs deal with the aftermath of Kristofferson's recent divorce from singer Rita Coolidge.Many of the songs are angry, but the anger is directed not so much at Coolidge as at the unreliable nature of love itself. In "Star-Crossed," he grumbles: "Anyway, now, anymore, you don't know who to trust -- Cause love is wild as lust and just as blind."

"Blessing In Disguise" is about the moment when the mystery of love has disappeared from a marriage. Kristofferson sings that despite the pain, divorce reveals a truth that is a "blessing in disguise." Yet it's clear that he feels the pain much more acutely than the blessing. The uptempo rhythm of "Snakebit" captures the compulsive need to remember an ex-lover dispite every effort not to. "Maybe You Heard" is a convincing plea to the friends of a divorcing couple to undertand instead of judging. "The Last Time" and Daddy's Song" are tales of a father and daughter separated by a custody order.

These songs don't wallow in bitterness, but explore the pain and illusions of love. Kristofferson can still condense an experience into a handful of just the right words. For example, he describes post-divorce depression as: "Searching for words, too deep, sweet reason and rhyme; living alone, more and more and he's prone to be lazy; turning to stone, blasted and blind."

These songs are so good they deserve better singers than Kristofferson. Billy Swan -- the rockabilly star -- sings backup on "Nobody Loves Anybody Anymore," which he co-wrote with Kristofferson. Swan should get a chance to sing lead on his own version.

Like Kristofferson, David Allan Coe is best known as a songwriter for other singers. He wrote "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)" for Tanya Tucker in 1974 and "Take This Job and Shove It" for Johnny Paycheck in 1977. Coe has a much better natural voice than Krisofferson, but even less idea of how to use it. His new album, "Invictus Means Unconquered" (columbia JC 36970), combines the worst aspects of "country outlaw music" and Nashville schlock. Coe takes the sloppily indulgent, macho vocals of the outlaws and sets them inside the tearjerker mawkishness of Nashville.

Coe didn't write a single song by himself and only co-wrote four.Shel Silverstein, Guy Clark and other Nashville tunesmiths fill the gap with the kind of posturing bluster and soap opera moralism that Coe is famous for.

Hank Williams Jr. doesn't have his daddy's voice, but he has enough of one to pull off a song in an understated Johnny Cash way. The younger Williams has a tendency, though, to sing about what a macho country boy he really is and what he'll do to the phonies who don't like it.

When he gets belligerent, Williams loses his sense of limits and pushes his voice into awkward positions. On his new album, "Rowdy" (Elektra 6E-330), Williams' vocals go in and out of focus from song to song. (

When he launches polemics, he tends to confuse sloppiness with spontaneity. The first four originals on side one are illfocused reactionary attacks. "Dixie On My Mind" attacks New York City; "Texas Women" attacks urban cowboys; "You Can't Find Many Kissers" attacks sexually loose women; "Give a Damn" attacks blue collar workers. For someone who pretends to be a friend of the average man, Williams sure doesn't like them too much.

But when tradition takes over, Williams makes his illustrious past pay off. He puts the right kind of swing into his own Dixieland blues, "Ain't Much More." He and Waylon Jennings join forces on Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" Their rocking tribute to the older Williams proves that the soul of country is more important than the style.

And the highlight of "Rowdy" is Hank Williams Jr.'s version of his father's "Ramblin' Man." Over a lonesome fiddle and dobro, Williams moans wistfully. He even adds some new line: "I'm a son of the blues, you see. Don't worry about him and don't worry about me." He should stop worrying himself and immerse himself in that tradition.