THERE'S a whole generation of women who were inspired by Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell to sing and play acoustic guitar. Although they worked from common models, this new generation has developed a wide array of personal variations on the folk style. Here's a sampling:
KATE WOLF -- "Poet's Heart" (Kaleidoscope, F-24). San Francisco's Wolf sings with an unhurried sureness that indicates a keen understanding of life's tolls as well as its rewards. Her songwriting patiently sketches in characters, landscapes and leisurely melodies without ever forcing anything. As the elements in her songs slowly drop into place, they give a reassuring sense of acceptance without submission.
Her new album contains nine new original songs. Sometimes her lyrics get a bit vague and overly wholesome, but at their best they encapsule a whole life in the image of a deserted house, a jewelry box or a handsewn pillow. The relaxed, restrained string-band arrangements are perfect for the reflective ballads. The two standout songs are "Slender Thread" and "In China or a Woman's Heart," each of which traces the history of a marriage with remarkable completeness.
CLAUDIA SCHMIDT -- "Out of the Dark" (Flying Fish, FF 361). Chicago's Schmidt once wrote lovely, understated folk songs that she delivered with acoustic guitar on her exquisite 1981 album, "Midwestern Heart." Since then she has grown enamored of musical theater and developed a brassier, more obvious style.
Her new album has none of the spoken recitations that marred her last effort, but it does lean heavily on derivative cabaret material. Her versions of songs by Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington are nice but not special, and her original tunes are the kind of simplistic, feel-good anthems that plagued "hip" musicals of the '70s.
SALLY ROGERS -- "Love Will Guide Us" (Flying Fish, FF 365). Connecticut's Rogers demonstrates a big, sturdy soprano and good taste in picking songs: Si Kahn's speculation on the end of the world, Craig Johnson's tribute to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Lisa Null's reflections on motherhood's dilemmas, and several gospel hymns. Whether singing a cappella or with a simple handful of instruments, Rogers tries nothing fancy but gives each song an unadorned dignity.
PATTY LARKIN -- "Step Into the Light" (Philo, PH-1103). Massachusetts' Larkin works in the same satiric and assertive mode as New York's Suzanne Vega and Christine Lavin. Larkin's debut album is marked by flashes of sassy wit on her tributes to a "Dodge Dart" and "Caffeine." Even on her more serious songs about modern relationships, she displays an irreverence for cherished myths and a refreshing directness. Her performances are as assured and snazzy as her songwriting.
MIMI FARINA -- "Solo" (Philo, PH-1102). San Francisco's Farina, Joan Baez's kid sister, makes her solo debut after an early career with her late husband, Richard Farina. Unfortunately, both her songwriting and her singing now choose only the most obvious paths. Farina combines well-worn melodies with generic homilies, and she shouts out the songs hootenanny style.