On their new albums, country singers Mary Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash seem to have less in common with mainstream Nashville stars such as Reba McEntire and Tammy Wynette than with progressive singer-songwriters such as Suzanne Vega, Edie Brickell and the Indigo Girls. Because they have been labeled "country" acts, however, Carpenter and Cash find it frustratingly difficult to cross over from country radio to college and AOR, no matter how literary their lyrics or how folk-rock their music.

Rather than cursing the fates, Carpenter and Cash should thank their lucky stars. Because they are forced to meet the minimal demands of country radio, their songwriting has the down-to-earth language, sturdy beats, hooky melodies and lucid narratives of Nashville craftsmanship. And because they lack the freedom of college radio, they never give in to the esoteric, shapeless self-indulgence that has marred the work of Vega, Brickell and the Indigos.

Mary Chapin Carpenter: 'Shooting Straight in the Dark' If Carpenter's 1987 debut album, "Hometown Girl," betrayed her folkie coffeehouse roots, and if her 1989 follow-up, "State of the Heart," proved her commercial potential in country music, her new album, "Shooting Straight in the Dark" (Columbia), consolidates those elements into a mature album that balances assertiveness and emotional openness in both its music and its lyrics. Carpenter (who appears at the Birchmere Nov. 19-21) is still a Washington resident, and she's still working with the same local gang of co-producer John Jennings and the Bias Studios session musicians. They haven't altered their approach so much as they've refined it.

The third song on the album is "The More Things Change (The More They Stay the Same)," which is typical of the project's realistic ambiguity. The mid-tempo number chugs along atop Jennings's thumping country-rock bass as Carpenter sings about a woman whose heart has been broken by an unfaithful lover. Rather than end with a clear-cut climax of loving forgiveness or angry separation, Carpenter's troubled character tries to gather her courage to face his loving angel eyes when he finally comes back home.

That tone of ambivalence, which resonates in Carpenter's rich, low alto, can be heard on many of these songs. "Going Out Tonight" starts out upbeat, pushed along by Jennings's catchy guitar riff, as if a broken heart can't stop the singer from going on with her life, but a note of desperation creeps into the monologue and betrays the singer's real feelings. The chunky country-rock tune "Middle Ground" draws a remarkable portrait of the kind of young woman who comes to a big city like Washington from a small town and reassures the folks back home that things are going much better than they actually are.

"Can't Take Love for Granted," which rolls gently atop Matt Rollings's piano arpeggios, describes a relationship falling apart more from carelessness than malice, and there's a despairing helplessness in Carpenter's vocal that's quite effective. This feeling is communicated even more powerfully in "What You Didn't Say," a ballad whose weariness is reinforced by Jennings's legato guitar.

Four of the songs are genre exercises. Carpenter set out to write a Cajun dance tune, an Appalachian folk ballad, a honky-tonk weeper and a sampler of Leonard Cohen religious metaphors, and she did a competent if derivative job with each. The songs did give her an excuse to sing with Beausoleil on her Cajun tribute to Bethesda's late, lamented Twist & Shout Dance Hall, and with John McCutcheon and Mark O'Connor on her Appalachian tribute to Halley's comet.

The album's biggest weakness (besides the awful, out-of-focus cover photo) is Carpenter's conservative approach. She illuminates our romantic instincts with a telling eye for detail and she performs familiar country-folk-rock forms with an understated elegance, but she never challenges our assumptions about relationships or about music. One can only hope that that's the next step in her steadily evolving career.

Rosanne Cash: 'Interiors'

If Carpenter has been moving away from her folkie roots, Johnny Cash's daughter Rosanne has been moving away from her roots in Nashville's inner sanctum. Rosanne Cash wrote and produced her new album, "Interiors" (Columbia), almost entirely by herself, and it is the most intimate album of her career. The songwriting is uneven, but the vocals are so raw and open that they transcend the "confessional" for a far riskier degree of self-exposure.

The album's title refers to the private doubts and agonies that often underlie our public facades, and this theme crops up in many of the songs. The opening track describes the romantic battles that occur "On the Inside," where casual observers never notice them. Cash's lyrics aren't very eloquent, but her bruised, reluctant vocal tone speaks volumes. She describes a similar relationship with the same quiet, aching vocal over acoustic guitars on "Land of Nightmares" ("the ocean's calm outside my door; the storm rages inside my head") and "Mirror Image" ("a cold heart here but no one knows it").

John Stewart helps her with the lyrics to "Dance With the Tiger," which restates the album theme in the opening line: "In every woman and man lies the seed of fear of just how alone are all who live here." That sense of loneliness is reinforced by the very spare arrangement, which frames Cash's forlorn, hushed voice with little more than Stewart's minimalist guitar lines and a hand drum. Cash's husband, Rodney Crowell, joins her for an affecting duet on her slow lament for a dying relationship that's still okay "On the Surface."

Nothing else in recent country music even approaches Cash's unsparing description of troubled modern romance. As an unsettling challenge to our assumptions about seemingly happy couples, it's as subversive as anything from Lou Reed or Elvis Costello, and it has the claustrophobic intensity of their darkest albums. Rather than simply surrender to her own bleak descriptions, though, Cash demands a better alternative. She sings "I Want a Cure" in a weary, weakened voice that's desperate enough to accept a chemical cure as well as a mental one.

Cash sings that "What We Really Want" is love, and the buoyant pop melody fills with the optimism of Steuart Smith's guitars. More defiant is the feminist anthem "Real Woman," which she co-wrote with Crowell. Cash argues with steely determination that she doesn't "want to fake my smile," that she doesn't "want to be a man"; she wants to let the real woman inside her come out.

Cash performs Dec. 1 at the Birchmere.

The Indigo Girls: 'Nomads-Indians-Saints'

"Nomads-Indians-Saints" (Epic), the third album from the Indigo Girls, features guest appearances from both Carpenter and her co-producer Jennings as well as the dBs' Peter Holsapple, but none of these craftsmen can lend sufficient discipline to the duo's hippie self-indulgence. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, products of the Athens, Ga., coffeehouse scene, are college radio heroines, but they can't even accomplish the minimal task of keeping their vocal harmonies on pitch.

Every once in a while, the Indigo Girls come up with a striking lyric line (such as Saliers's "Now I know a refuge never grows from a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose") or an arresting musical moment (such as the fiddle-backed, lazy country feel on Saliers's "Southland in the Springtime"), and you can glimpse their raw talent. Those epiphanies are always soon undone, though, by an obtrusive literary conceit, a vocal line that sabotages the song's rhythm, a sophomoric pseudo-profundity or a ragged harmony.

The album's opening song, Saliers's "Hammer and Nail," resembles Cash's meditations on internalized pain and loneliness, but just when she seems ready to expose something really personal, Saliers covers up with political cliches about "global life." Ray's "Hand Me Downs" attempts to describe a romantic relationship with the ambivalence of Carpenter's songs, but she's ultimately derailed by her inability to understate anything -- lyrically or musically.