"Iwould just say, 'Songwriter Robs Liquor Store.' "

That would make a good headline for this story, according to Joe Henry, the songwriter in question. "That's your hook, right? That's what you're always looking for."

Agreed. Journalists need an angle. So we've been reduced to the ploy of letting Henry suggest the headline because even though one of his songs was a Billboard Top 5 smash last year, he wasn't the one singing it, so you've never heard of him. After doing print interviews for more than a decade, Henry knows the headline has to be a grabber because otherwise this will seem, at first glance, to be just another story about a critically acclaimed poetic genius whom the music-buying public, the radio establishment and the VH1-MTV axis have rewarded with utter indifference.

Okay, but how about the headline "I Married Madonna's Little Sister!"? Or: "My Best Friend Was a Trumpet-Playing Cannibal"?

Those hit pretty good angles, too, and both happen to be true.

There is interesting stuff aplenty in the bittersweet biography of Joseph Lee Henry, an entertainer with three very average names. He began his career in Michigan as a folk and country crooner 15 years ago and has recently branched into jazz -- luring the legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman onto his latest CD. Like Aimee Mann and Tom Waits, two of Henry's "advisers," he is stubbornly dedicated to storytelling in song and a pure artistic vision.

Those smitten by Henry's warm, low tenor voice recommend his albums with a missionary zeal. Critics praise him for maturing beyond the rock-pop boundaries, but he has eluded commercial success all the way. On Saturday night the guitarist, backed by grand piano, played a stunning acoustic set at the sold-out Voters for Choice benefit at George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, although most in the crowd seemed to have no idea who he was. They'd come to hear the more popular Ani DiFranco, Bruce Hornsby and Blues Traveler's John Popper.

Aside to police: To our knowledge, the subject, age 41, of Pasadena, Calif., a man of medium build with a distinctive pompadour hairdo, last seen wearing a black-and-white polka-dot scarf, did not hold up a liquor store, or even patronize one during his brief visit to Washington. But let us attempt to explain why such a thought might cross the mind of this otherwise genial singer-songwriter.

"One of rock's great neglected iconoclasts," Entertainment Weekly calls Henry, deeming "Scar," his eighth album, "heartbreakingly good." CDNow, the online record dealer, just listed "Scar" as the No. 2 essential rock album of 2001, behind Bob Dylan's "Love & Theft."

"A lyrical giant," Madonna herself says of Henry, singing his praises in the New York Times. "A real undiscovered poet."

Undiscovered is right: "Scar" has sold a mere 25,000 copies. To Henry, that's progress: "It's outsold any record I've ever made," he says.

But when his sister-in-law Madonna -- he has been married to her sister Melanie for 14 years -- reworked one of the songs from "Scar," the tune went worldwide. Same lyrics, including these haunting lines about unstoppable love:

Tell the bed not to lay

Like the mouth of a grave

Not to stare up at me

Like a calf on its knees . . .

Tell me everything I'm not

But don't tell me to stop.

Musically, the two versions are virtually unrecognizable as the same song. His title: "Stop." It's a soulful, electrifying tango. Her title: "Don't Tell Me." It's a hiccupy, countrified dance number. It appeared on Madonna's 2000 album, "Music," which has sold millions, naturally, and she has just included it on her new greatest-hits collection.

Henry, who has known Madonna and the other Ciccone siblings since his high school days in the Detroit suburbs, is pleased to take a share of the limelight, and even more delighted to receive songwriting royalties, which he says will help pay for his two children's orthodontia. He offers nothing but praise for her rendition, and says "it was a striking moment" when he sat not long ago at a Madonna concert in Los Angeles and heard 18,000 fans singing his words.

But he also humbly realizes that "people just don't listen to lyrics," and that words matter little in the overall equation of pop success. "Are these strange words or not? They couldn't have cared less," Henry says. "For them being at a Madonna show is not so much like a musical event, it's like watching a parade."

Madonna more typically sings songs that rhyme words like "girl" and "world." Henry's poetic muse embraces love and loss, Bob and Ray, the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, a fireman's wedding, a short man's room. He is given to literary allusion and vivid similes:

My love is like a mountain

Her mouth is like a mine

Incubating diamonds

As we rise and shine

Or:

And fish jump in her boat all day and flog your feet like steel.

Also:

But her fingers on your lips are like a penny for a fuse.

The above lyrics can be found on Henry's 1999 "Fuse," which sold 24,000 copies and also was regarded by some critics as one of that year's great recordings. Sample his work throughout the '90s and you'll find consistently excellent compositions and an evolving artistry that refuses to hew to convention. (When he started out in the late 1980s, he might have been considered an "alternative country" artist, though it was years before the genre had that moniker or much of a following.)

"Scar," with its orchestral blues and jazz elements, serves as another testament to his progression. The first track, "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," features a solo by Coleman, the septuagenarian free-jazz pioneer. Impressed by the quality of Henry's songwriting -- he spent a weekend listening to "Fuse" -- Coleman agreed to record a song with Henry even though he'd turned down many other such requests to collaborate. Henry viewed "Richard Pryor" as "Richard's own paradoxical love song to America: hating it but still desiring and needing its acceptance."

Fretting about the unauthorized use of Pryor's name, his label's lawyers asked him to change the song's title. Henry refused, and quickly obtained the ailing comic's permission. Adopting the plaintive voice of Pryor, Henry declares:

Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself

Spreading out my wings

Above us like a tree

Laughing now, out loud

Almost like I was free

The showdown seems to have stirred a restlessness in Henry. He won't comment on relations with his longtime label, Disney-owned Mammoth Records, except to say cryptically, "I'm in transition by my own design."

"I'm not at a point where I've been trapped by anything. I don't have anybody's expectations that I'm responsible for. I say this half-jokingly: Failure is incredibly liberating."

And now, before we get too boring-rock-critic-analytical on you, the cannibalism angle.

Joe Henry spent his formative musical years in Bath, Ohio, learning to play trumpet with an elementary school friend by the name of Jeff. As in Dahmer. The same Jeffrey Dahmer who would be arrested in 1991 for killing 17 young men and boys in what reporters tactfully called a "grotesque rampage of necrophilia and cannibalism."

"I knew him very well," Henry recalls, "for about a four-year period. There was nothing in his behavior to suggest that he was going to be a cannibal."

The Henry family moved from Ohio after Joe finished seventh grade, and he says, "I never gave him another thought until I saw him arrested on TV. They ran a picture of the junior high school band in People magazine and I was sitting next to him. . . . We were next-to-last and last chair."

He won't reveal which he was, adding with a laugh: "I don't know which makes me look worse: being behind Jeffrey Dahmer or ahead of Jeffrey Dahmer."

More biographical fodder: Henry's father, a Chevrolet executive, settled the family near Detroit. Joe Henry befriended the Ciccone sisters and brothers, whose father worked for Chrysler. Joe drove a '63 Corvair convertible and grooved on musicians of all styles: Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Tom Waits, Randy Newman. He didn't care much for the Beatles.

In a high school play, "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail," he portrayed the great transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. His mother, Mrs. Emerson, was played by a thespian named Madonna Ciccone. "Madonna is older, two classes ahead of me in high school," Henry said.

He met Melanie, Madonna's younger sister, through a chain-link fence at a hot-air balloon race on Labor Day 1977. He recalls that she once had returned some of his books -- ones Paula Ciccone, another older sister, had borrowed, then taken with her to University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: Vonnegut, Salinger, Thurber.

Melanie was struck by Joe's literary nature. He earned an English degree at the University of Michigan, recorded an album and soon moved to New York to pursue his career. He discovered that the music business is "heinous" and "ugly," but Joe considered himself fortunate: He was able to survive doing what he wants to do.

He married Melanie in 1987. "It was a fateful thing," she recalls, fresh from her yoga exercises, talking recently by phone from their home in California. "Even when Joe or I are individually or collectively feeling frustrated, we say, 'Everything is happening as it should.' "

She also seems to be no fan of commercially successful pop music: "I look at what's revered out there and say, 'Is everybody dumb? What is the problem?' "

Talking backstage Saturday night, Henry seems entirely comfortable with his lot -- not bitter by any means, though not satisfied either. The future? "I want to make a record I've never made before, I want to write a song I haven't written before. I want to make a better record than I've made. Those are my ambitions."

Toward that end he works daily in a studio behind his home. He picks up his kids at school, and likes to cook dinner for the family (you can find his recipes on joehenryaddressesthenation.com). Never a star, he's never fallen victim to addictive and destructive behavior, and also points out this unglamorous fact: "I'm a parent, a dedicated husband and father. Music I take very seriously but it's not my reason to continue."

He has never felt the need to put out a book of nude photos or cavort in his underwear onstage. He is, in the world of entertainment, a rather average Joe.

"I feel I really struck the gold mine," Melanie Ciccone says of her husband. "My sister likes to tease me about that."

As the world knows, the recently wed Madonna has endured her share of man troubles. She calls Melanie lucky to have a guy like Joe, and such a lasting marriage.

You'll never see him making headlines by robbing liquor stores. But he might write about it.

To hear free Sound Bites call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181 for Joe Henry's "Stop" and 8182 for Madonna's "Don't Tell Me."

Joe Henry at Lisner Auditorium: Sister-in-law Madonna's fame may not be rubbing off on the singer-songwriter, but at least he earns royalties from her rendition of his song."Stop," the single from Joe Henry's album "Scar," was reworked by his sister-in-law Madonna, left, into "Don't Tell Me," which appeared on her hit album "Music." The critically acclaimed "Scar," Henry's most successful album, has sold a grand total of 25,000 copies.