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It was a Saturday night at Billy Bob's in Dallas, and the cavernous honky-tonk -- so big that the beer lights seem to follow the curvature of the globe as they disappear into the blue smoke -- was alive with ritual: girls in tight jeans eyeing guys in starched Western shirts, couples on the town, pool shooters with their cues at big-buckle level. Billy Bob's has a number of stages, but on this August evening most of the attention was focused on a slender blond on the main stage as she sang a song so full of steel guitar and heartbreak -- so traditional -- that your father might've listened to it as a boy.
Billy Bob's has seen more than its share of young country mediocrities, but there was something about the young woman that held the crowd. Perhaps it was the power of her voice; maybe it was the accomplished maturity behind her world-weary phrasing. More likely it was the way those things added up to a goose-bump-raising evocation of one of the greatest female country singers of all time, Patsy Cline, summoned back from wherever she was called that day in March 1963 when her plane crashed into the earth.
The girl on-stage was LeAnn Rimes -- one of the youngest country artists to ever turn the industry upside down, keeper of the traditions of Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker and Wanda Jackson, beloved Texas homegirl who built her reputation one laborious step at a time through hundreds of grass-roots appearances at regional opries, festivals, ballgames and rodeos. Since last summer, she's been the center of national attention thanks to "Blue," a sad and supple lament straight out of the late '50s that arced across country music by moving 35,000 copies in the first week of the single's release. The album of the same name has also done well: It sold 250,000 copies its first 21 days on the market, and a week ago it moved from number eight to number seven on the pop charts, where it's been sitting pretty since last July. It's been even more dominant on the country charts.
At Billy Bob's, just as her rocket of fame was entering its first stage of ignition, Rimes was alluring in a sleeveless dress. She worked the stage like a pro. Every hand gesture and flourish was seamlessly connected to the songs she sang, and even if she seemed a bit overwhelmed at times by the scale of Billy Bob's, she kept it together, showing an appreciation of the classics with tunes such as "Blue," "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" from another Patsy (Montana) and Cline's own "Leavin' on Your Mind." Rimes moved through her set with the ease of a Korean gymnast, and the 3,000 or so who were there to see her responded madly. She was hot property, number one with a bullet. This was the first real bar she'd played, but that was okay -- on this night she was just 13.
She sure as hell didn't look 13. She's now 14, an age she reached last August 28, and she sure doesn't look 14 either. On that count Rimes excites concern. There's hardly a faster, more shark-filled whirlpool than the country music business, and Rimes has jumped into the center of the spiral with both feet and the full support of her family, betting that no youthful misstep will put her in a Hall of Shame that stretches from Spade Cooley to Ty Herndon.
Although she first expressed her desire to sing when she was five, LeAnn Rimes's voice showed up before she turned two. Her parents, Wilbur and Belinda, have a tape of her, only 18 months old, singing in perfect pitch. When she was three, she was sleeping in the back seat of the family car late one night when she suddenly sat up and sang the chorus to a popular country hit, John Anderson's "Swingin'," and promptly passed back out.
When your dreams are so full of music that you actually wake up singing at the age of three, the pull must be very strong. In Mississippi, where LeAnn was born, Wilbur came home late one night from coon hunting and found his five-year-old daughter waiting up for him with the trophies she had gotten that night at a talent contest; she told him that singing was the only thing she "ever wanted to do," and so they made her dream their mission. How could they not? For 12 years, Wilbur and Belinda had despaired of having a child, told by doctors that it simply wasn't possible; when LeAnn was born on August 28, 1982, it was a miracle, brought on simply by hope and prayer, and their only child fulfilled every expectation.
The family moved to Texas when she was eight, and it was in Texas that she discovered the proving grounds for young talent that are the local opries, amateur nights that feature aspiring artists singing a favorite tune and usually backed by some form of band. She started in Garland, Wylie and Mesquite; then, at age seven, she moved up to the Johnny High Country Revue, a popular weekend showcase in Arlington that she played hundreds of times, building the chops and reflexes that would make her a credible singer.
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