This is a peculiar, shifting time for new female country singers. Their role models are immediate and disparate ones. Reba McEntire continues to sell millions of records on the strength of a sophisticated sense of melodrama plus a stage act that involves multiple costume changes and lots of smoke. By contrast, Emmylou Harris presides over female-country like a benign earth goddess she doesn't go platinum much, but her no-nonsense, no-frills attitude is strongly echoed in currently more popular performers such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Alison Krauss. Late-breaking role model: Shania Twain, the Canadian rookie with a voice modeled after Linda Ronstadt's and a video presence a la Cindy Crawford's, is now achieving top 10 pop-crossover success. Given these contrasting examples of brash showmanship, low-key authenticity, and hubba-hubba slinkiness, what's a girl to do?
As far as quality goes, newcomer Terri Clark, fares well. The leadoff track on her debut, Terri Clark, ''Better Things to Do,'' is as woman-assertive as Helen Darling's ''Jenny Come Back,'' but it's also a lot more energetic and clever. On ''Better,'' Clark has been dumped by her boyfriend, but when he calls to win her back, she cuts him loose, telling him she's got better things to do. You're not entirely sure she herself is truly convinced of this, since her list of ''better things'' includes ''check the air in my tires/Straighten my stereo wires,'' but her firmness and sarcasm are enjoyably believable.
So it is with the rest of the album. Clark has cowritten most of the songs here, and if she's smart enough to include a song called ''Catch 22'' that contains a perfect romantic example of one, she's also tradition-bound enough to take a cornball image like ''Tyin' a Heart to a Tumbleweed'' and make a touching, fiddle-accompanied cowboy ballad out of it. In achieving current country's obligatory tough/tender balance, Clark manages to seem an original. B+