NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ The Dixie Chicks and Clint Black are leading a small group of country music artists who are stretching the boundaries of the modern mainstream country album.

The industry standard for an album in Nashville is 10 carefully crafted songs designed to be radio hits. Breaking from that formula takes courage when lack of airplay can have a gigantic effect on sales _ and country music radio stations are among the most stylistically and topically conservative in the United States.

So why would the Dixie Chicks risk their status as the latest darlings of radio programmers by including pointed songs about murder and sex on their new album, ``Fly''?

``I guess after you sell 6 million records and counting, you get to kind of call more shots,'' Dixie Chick Martie Seidel says with a laugh.

They're not the only ones taking chances.

Garth Brooks is promoting an album of pop-rock music under the name Chris Gaines. The album will tie into ``The Lamb,'' a movie set for next year, with Brooks playing Gaines.

Marty Stuart released ``The Pilgrim'' earlier this year. It's reminiscent of classic Willie Nelson concept albums of the 1970s like ``The Red Headed Stranger.''

Relative newcomer Gary Allan is having some success with ``Smoke Rings in the Dark,'' a moody single recalling pop singer Chris Isaak.

And just out is ``D'lectrified,'' Clint Black's ``unplugged'' album.

Black took the acoustic concept further than the ``greatest hits on stools'' idea begun by MTV. He used only acoustic instruments, but the album sounds as full and brash as an electric album since he used creative arrangements and horn sections.

Black's album has guest appearances by Waylon Jennings, Eric Idle, Edgar Winter, Kenny Loggins and Bruce Hornsby, and the songs are a grab bag of Black originals, old classics by heroes like Jennings, Toy Caldwell and Leon Russell, and three remakes of old Black hits.

Black, a pretty fair harmonica player, stretches out on the instrument a couple of times on the album.

``It sounds like a cliche, but really I want to learn,'' Black says. ``I look at guys like James Taylor _ his albums are better today than they ever were, after 20 or 25 years.

``I want to be able to have that said about me, and that's the only way that you do it, is if you reach for something that's just out of reach.''

Commercial success of these gambles has been mixed, and many of the more far-out songs won't ever be released as singles.

Charlie Cook, who helps program more than 250 country stations as a vice president of the Westwood One Radio Network, thinks the radio industry should be more open to musicians taking risks.

``We have been complaining about the sameness of the country artists over the last couple of years,'' Cook says. ``I don't think you can on one hand complain, then on other hand not be willing to take a chance.''

Sometimes, it's small things. Several songs on ``D'lectrified'' run more than 5 minutes, while most country singles run 4 minutes at most to encourage more airplay.

``I don't make an album with the hopes that every song is going to go to radio,'' Black says. ``I stopped doing that a long time ago, and I think it makes for a more interesting album.''

The album ``Fly'' by the Dixie Chicks features plenty of the soaring harmonies and energetic music that worked so well on their 1998 breakthrough album, ``Wide Open Spaces.'' And the Chicks continue to use lots of Emily Robison's banjo, an instrument that once doomed the airplay potential of a single.

But they take their daring further on the new album. In ``Goodbye Earl,'' two women poison a wife-beater's black-eyed peas, wrap the body in a tarp and take it to a lake to be dumped.

In ``Sin Wagon,'' Maines sings about wanting to do some ``mattress dancing,'' and declares: ``I don't know where I'll be crashin'/But I'm arrivin' on a sin wagon.''

Such messages could be troublesome to the parents of the legions of young girls who buy Dixie Chick records. But Seidel thinks the words will sail right over their heads.

``I remember singing 'Like a Virgin' when I didn't even know what a virgin was,'' Seidel says. ``It was a song. It was Madonna. It wasn't too serious. I think a lot of our humor might go over the heads of kids that young.

``I would not be ashamed for my 5-year-old stepson to hear 'Sin Wagon' or 'Goodbye Earl.' That's how I gauge it.''

Controversy over those two songs _ neither likely to be a single _ hasn't stopped ``Fly'' from quickly selling more than 2 million copies.

The Dixie Chicks' successful example might just galvanize other artists to take some chances. That would be fine by Seidel.

``I do think artists need to have a stronger voice with the music that's being produced on their behalf,'' she says. ``I think the worst thing is if you think your chance was squandered with somebody else's bad production, or ideas that weren't representative of you.

``If anything, I hope other artists might see that we take a chance. And they might fight for something they believe in.''

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Elsewhere in country music ...

COUNTRY THESPIAN: Gary Allan is picking up acting jobs. He plays Eddie Cochran in the CBS miniseries ``Shake, Rattle and Roll,'' which airs Nov. 7 and Nov. 10. He'll have an easier role on the syndicated ``Pensacola: Wings of Gold.'' He'll play himself, and perform his single, ``Smoke Rings in the Dark.'' It airs the weekend of Nov. 6.