Mac McAnally makes such a good living in Nashville writing songs and playing sessions for the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Sawyer Brown, Steve Wariner and Randy Travis that he doesn't have to rely on his own albums to support himself. So when he gets around to releasing the occasional album (this is his first in five years), he needn't worry about trying to please country radio. Instead he indulges his yen for left-field genre exercises and more personal songs, as on his latest release, "Word of Mouth."

If this approach frustrates his labels, it pleases McAnally's many admirers among critics and his fellow musicians, who appreciate his understated craftsmanship. The new album includes forays into R&B (a funky "Things to Do Today"), Mose Allison-like jazz (a wry "Pop Top Hop") and comedy (a hilarious duet with Buffett on "The Ass and the Hole").

A few tunes stumble into formula and sentiment, but McAnally is at his best on low-key, folk-pop songs such as "Looking Back," "Cold Day in Hell" and "Out the Window." No country star would ever touch these astute character studies, for they're far too specific and far too honest about life's disappointments.

Appearing Friday at Lewie's. To hear a free Sound Bite from Mac McAnally, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8105. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

CAPTION: Mac McAnally, craftsman.