The Reason of Rimes

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.

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.

"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."

The more you get to know LeAnn Rimes, the easier it is to believe that she, too, will one day see her dreams come true, and the more ludicrous the idea that anyone, from her parents to the president, could take advantage of this determined young woman becomes. But there's something striking that becomes apparent when watching her video archives, a taped record of Rimes's major appearances. In the older ones, Wilbur appears a different man, relaxed, happy, every inch the proud papa; these days there's a perpetual crouch, a wariness and a readiness to protect that can at times make him seem suspicious and hard. There was a time when such a posture was part and parcel of fatherhood, necessary to adequately protect the brood, and it's sobering to contemplate how essential it remains.

In one clip LeAnn, on horseback in cowgirl gear and a big, flat Oklahoma-style straw hat, is singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a rodeo; she looks noticeably younger, maybe ten or 11. Wilbur stands next to her horse, holding the reins and beaming contentedly. Although only a few years have passed since then, Wilbur has aged ten, and it saddens to think of him like one of our presidents, a man whose picture can be accurately dated by how worn-out and tired he looks. All of a sudden his admonition -- "You can quit anytime, and we'll just go back to how it used to be" -- takes on an unforeseen poignancy.

All the great stories involve cost, and LeAnn Rimes's may well be one of the classics: The heart's deepest desire granted, then the bill. A child beautiful beyond all expectation and likewise taxing, yet who can deny their child? Wilbur and Belinda Rimes are bound to stand by; there is no place else they would rather be. Trouble is always lurking in the shadows and fame seems to be one of his more abundant hunting grounds. Until you stop caring you can never let your guard down. LeAnn Rimes, full of youthful energy, seems able to care forever.

LeAnn Rimes's performance Friday, February 14, at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at the Astrodome is sold out. Rodeo begins at 7 p.m.; concert follows rodeo. With Alan Jackson. For info, call 791-9000.

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