MANY YOUNG SINGERS have responded to the mediocrity of much contemporary country music by seeking out country's distant past. By contrast, Rosanne Cash and Steve Earle have become two of pop music's most exciting figures by charting a future that brings country back to the pop mainstream without sacrificing country's best virtues.

On her new album, "King's Record Shop," Cash addresses the perennial country themes of troubled marriages and love on the rebound with a timeless emotional transparency. Yet the record, produced by her husband Rodney Crowell, has a rhythmic punch and harmonic fullness that owes more to the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac than to Nashville.

Cash has never sung better, and the songs (written by herself, Crowell and such friends as John Hiatt) fit her refreshing brand of feminism: insisting on respect but still hoping for true love.

Earle's second album, "Exit Zero," tackles the familiar country themes of hard-working men who fondly remember their youthful adventures and who drink to forget their current dissatisfaction. Earle has the gritty, unflinching voice of such men, but he backs that voice with the ringing guitars and thumping drums of his own generation.

Earle is an exceptional storyteller, and brings to life such characters as a bankrupt farmer, a laid-off factory hand and an eternally restless drifter. Earle's band, the Dukes, has matured into sympathetic and effective collaborators; they amplify the contagious joy behind "San Antonio Girl" and the intimidating desperation behind "Angry Young Man." ROSANNE CASH --

"King's Record Shop" (Columbia FC 40777).


"Exit Zero" (MCA 5998).

Both appear Friday at the Warner Theater.