RICKY VAN SHELTON is just one in a growing crowd of golden-voiced, neo-honky-tonk singers in Nashville. Nonetheless the hitmaker from Grit, Va., stands out from the pack not merely because he has the biggest cowboy hat but also because his producer Steve Buckingham has a knack for picking out material with wittier lyrics and fresher melodies than most of the competition. Van Shelton's new album, "RVS III," is full of old-fashioned honky-tonk songs and their delightful puns, extravagant metaphors and swaggering rhythms.

It helps that Van Shelton -- unlike his more earnest colleagues -- doesn't take his songs too seriously; there's a Presley-like playfulness in his voice that allows us to appreciate the deliberate exaggeration in the lyrics. When he suggests that they build a "Statue of a Fool" for the town park with himself as the model, his Orbison-like embellishments give the metaphoric conceit an operatic flair. He plays the Cyrano de Bergerac role in "I Meant Every Word He Said" with a light touch that avoids sticky melodrama.

He raves his way through the fire metaphors on the neo- rockabilly tune "Love Is Burnin' " convincingly, and he holds his own in a big-voiced duet with Brenda Lee on Mickey Newbury's "Sweet Memories." Best of all is his balance of weary regret and embattled hope on "Life's Little Ups and Downs."

Van Shelton is backed by a fine neo-traditionalist country band that features his regular pedal steel guitarist, Tommy Hannum, formerly of the local Rosslyn Mountain Boys. Hannum has released his own solo album, "Page One."

He's only a passable singer, but he has written some fresh originals (especially the rockabilly cut "I Don't Know What's Wrong With Me" and his honky-tonk collaboration with Dean Dillon, "Out of the Blue"), and his picking on steel, dobro and guitar is a model of raw talent and good taste. For those who admired Hannum during his D.C. days, this solo album is a welcome musical letter home.


"RVS III" (Columbia).


"Page One" (Hannum, P.O. Box 1935, Madison, TN 37116). Both appearing Sunday with Ricky Skaggs, Mary Chapin Carpenter, T. Graham Brown, Garth Brooks,Randall Hylton and other performers at the Bull Run Country Jamboree at Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville. Call 352-5900.