The Reason of Rimes

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

"It was a necessity," she says of removing Rimes from public schools. "They egged her locker. They even tried to fit her into her locker, and they threatened her. These weren't gang kids, either -- they were the children of professionals, and they did it out of sheer jealousy." It's not the kind of history that inspires a lot of retrospective mooning.

"Most of my friends are in the business," Rimes explains now, dropping a well-practiced line about how most of them are between the ages of 20 and 80. "I've basically grown up in the adult world all my life, and I really don't have any friends my age since I've gotten out of public schooling. I don't really mind," she says, perhaps thinking about how different your locker can appear when someone's trying to force your head into it.

And love, marriage, baby carriage, etc.? Rimes, although vulnerable to crushes, isn't missing, or planning, anything. "I can't really meet anybody right now," she says, looking just a touch embarrassed. "I don't have a boyfriend, and I'm probably too busy for anybody right now. Hopefully, in the next two or three years, it might come."

"I want to have everything a normal person would have, basically," she explains. "Hopefully, one day I'll be able to slow down and even start a family."

That might take a while, given the stylistic goals that Rimes has set for herself. Her first -- and perhaps greatest -- love is for Broadway. "Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand were probably the first two people I started listening to; Barbra Streisand has been a huge influence on me. Patsy Cline was the first country music I ever listened to," Rimes says, going down the list with practiced ease. "I love all kinds of music, but I consider myself country, [although] it's really neat that Blue actually crossed over to pop."

Her thinking is long term. "I love pop music," she admits, "but I want to stick with country as long as I can. That's what I've grown up on, and that's what I listen to. I'd like to be like Kenny Rogers -- do major Christmas shows, like a Broadway musical thing. Maybe even Broadway, when I'm in my forties or something. I've always wanted to act."

"Country fans -- at least originally -- have the most allegiance," says Bill Mack, a country DJ legend and the man who wrote "Blue" back in 1959, held onto it for three and a half decades, then passed it along to Rimes after hearing her sing. "But they'll drop you in a second if they think they're being snubbed. I've seen it."

Therein lies the danger, Mack warns: "The glamour goes fast because of the fatigue. People want to see you, and if you don't make time for them, they'll think you're stuck up, and that's fatal."

The physical toll exacted by constant performing was something Belinda and Wilbur Rimes had resolved would not fall on their daughter; almost everyone who's been around the Rimeses has mentioned Wilbur's constant reminders to LeAnn that none of this is necessary if she doesn't want to do it, that they can go home anytime. Unfortunately, Belinda and Wilbur seem to have been caught a bit flat-footed themselves. "It's taken off real fast," Wilbur says, denying that he would have preferred it to go more slowly. "That's good, it's what the superstars want. In the music business, everybody wants to be on top."

LeAnn Rimes is facing a lot these days. "The question I guess I get asked the most these days is 'Will it change her?' " Mack says. "I say it's inevitable. Of course it will." Some of the more interesting questions will be stylistic -- will she follow idol Reba into one-name pop dominance, or get torchy-artsy like k.d. lang? That second path really wouldn't be out of step with her Next Patsy identity; Cline herself was a varied interpreter who was hardly stone country, and was capable of being quite urbane and sophisticated.

But a good voice can only take you so far. Rimes can make her case for the singer-as-interpreter, and her gift is potent, but the line between being very good and being brilliant oft times lies in the nuances, the ability to deliver fine shades of meaning that only comes from living a life: finding love, losing a job, raising a child or putting down a former best friend. Interpretation is fine, but greatness comes from communication, real transmission, and Rimes simply hasn't lived long enough to be anything but full of potential.

Of course, unprepared is hardly a word you'll hear applied to a child who could sing in perfect pitch before she could dress herself, announced to her folks that she wanted to be a singer when she was barely out of diapers and has directed her whole life toward this moment. There are always risks, but Wanda Jackson, for one, thinks they're worth the rewards. "I became what I intended to be," she says proudly. And her young life? "It was as normal as I wanted it," Jackson says. "I have absolutely no regrets ... I got to see all my dreams come true."

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