The Reason of Rimes

LeAnn Rimes has taken country music by storm. She's only 14. And that's the rub.

When Rimes is seen -- schoolgirl-perky and pretty, her long blond hair down to her shoulders -- it's impossible not to be captivated by her. It's also impossible to believe that she's 14. Despite the softness of her face, her girlish pronouncements of "neat!" and her giggles, her body has the rounded contours of a 20-year-old.

It's that physical development coupled with her youth that evokes the questions that quiver dissonantly around any consideration of her. It may well be the Catch-22 of a patriarchal society. Girls turn into women, everybody around them freaks out and the girls themselves have to deal with it. But whatever you call it, Rimes is in the thick of it. There's a lot of stilted tiptoeing around the subject -- nobody really wants to address it -- but a subject it remains.

When country legend Red Stegall steered Rimes toward Liberty Records's Jimmy Bowen, the executive turned her down flat: Come back when you're 18, he said. No kids on the road: Too much hassle, not enough stability, too much mixing of things usually kept apart. Despite the fact that the Rimes family, including LeAnn -- some say especially LeAnn -- go to great lengths to find material that's "age-appropriate" for her to sing, pop conventions work against them. The simple fact is that when a female sings a steamy blues number about her no-good man, informing him that his bags are not only packed but awaiting him on the street, the listener makes certain assumptions. Women might say "right on, sister" or some such, but the male brain is much more likely to run along the lines of, "Say, she's cute ... that guy must be a fool. If I could get some of that, I'd treat her right." Naturally, the male mouth falls open surprised and a little bit ashamed when the brain finds out just who, exactly, it's talking about. But the impulse remains, no matter how assiduously everyone tries to pretend it doesn't.

Sometimes you have to pretend harder than others, like when Rimes sings that she's "looking into the face of love / and it's a good-lookin' man," as she does on Blue's "Good Lookin' Man." On another cut -- "My Baby" -- she assures us that "my lover is a full-grown man." It's a split sense of sexuality, alternating between kittenish and downright feral, a pop female sexuality reminiscent of Wanda Jackson, the incandescent rockabilly singer who delivered hits such as "Fujiyama Mama," "Mean Mean Man" and "Havin' a Party" in a voice that was part snarl, part purr and all power, united by a gum-chewing twang that could cut steel and the will-to-fun of a 16-year-old girl ordering her first sloe gin fizz.

Rimes may be a bit more restrained, but she is, or her people are, aware of the same easily pushed buttons: The video for "Blue" found the singer floating alluringly in Austin's Barton Springs, wearing retro-cool cat-eye shades that fairly screamed "Lolita!" It's emblematic of an industry -- maybe a society -- a little unsure of how to handle the issues associated with underage females. Wanda Jackson, who was three years older than Rimes when she hit it big in the '50s, has second thoughts today about teenage girls projecting such a teasing persona. "I've thought about it," she says from her home in Moore, Oklahoma. "Probably it's not such a good idea ... by singing about it, you want to experience it, and it's easy to think you're in love when you're looking." Doubtless everyone will breathe a relieved sigh when LeAnn Rimes puts a few more years on her and these questions disappear. Until then, it's cognitive dissonance a gogo.

LeAnn Rimes sounds like Patsy Cline at times, to be sure, but she resembles Cline in another way as well: Her narrow, almost almond-shaped eyes, her mother's eyes. If you didn't go to high school in the right place, you may not know that that's the look of deep country womanhood, most memorably the province of determined FFA/ kicker girls, some of whom have been known to fight with each other in the lunchroom. Country culture is not the most female-friendly variant available, but it energizes some. Rimes reminds you of one of those determined women, an uncheckable ball of female drive.

Meeting her, you almost immediately put away all the Wanda Jackson-type questions, unwilling to risk a teenage girl's most powerful repellents: the uprolled eyes, the wrinkled nose, the long, disgusted "eeeeeeeww." It's best not to even think of father Wilbur whipping your ass in the parking lot after you cross some invisible line. The other questions bouncing around -- Don't you miss school? Your pals? What about the prom? -- seem ludicrous to the extreme. This cool creature doesn't miss school. If she did, she'd be there. "I really don't think I'm missing out on anything," she avers. "I don't think I will, either, because I'm achieving a lot right now. " She pauses. "It's really neat."

Here you run up against the streamlining effect fame often has on a story: Although they don't directly address it anymore, the family has been home-schooling LeAnn for years, way before Blue made it big. It turns out that worries about the psychic cost of not being in a warm, fuzzy public school environment are misguided: LeAnn doesn't miss it, because for her it wasn't a particularly pleasant experience. When her fame grew beyond neighborhood status, a group of predatory girls decided she was a stuck-up little thing and instituted a campaign of harassment. Barbara Rice, Rimes's booking agent for 1995, remembers it well.

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