By Deborah Frost
Updated November 19, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Joe Henry is Madonna’s brother-in- law, but his plain-sung, pedal-steel-pierced vignettes (in which firemen marry beneath paper bells and hope always squeaks past irony) plumb America’s psyche with a classicist’s, not a provocateur’s, perspective. If he picked up his tempo, Henry might sound more like Tom Petty and less like Willie Nelson. But even though he’d rather roll than rock, Kindness of the World, Henry’s fifth effort, reveals a mature songwriter ready to take on the world. A-