The Kids Are Alright

Two decades after Tanya Tucker, Texas teens are tearing up the music scene.

October 1996By , and Comments

“I AM SO TIRED, I CAN HARDLY CUT MY MEAT,” sighs young country singer LeAnn Rimes as she saws listlessly at a piece of brisket with a plastic knife. She’s sitting with her grown-up band members under an oak tree at the hospitality house of the Wyoming State Fairgrounds, and she came by her respite the old-fashioned way: She earned it.

Arguably the hottest item in American music this summer, the Garland teenager, her band and crew, and managers-parents Wilbur and Belinda Rimes flew into Denver from Dallas this August morning on a six-thirty flight, then drove rental cars 230 miles north to Douglas, Wyoming, for the state fair gig. Last week she spent four days in Nashville (appearing at a charity golf tournament and performing at a private party for HBO), did a one-nighter in Livingston, Louisiana, put in a private-party appearance in Dallas, and—on her first free day in more than a month—attended a bowling party in advance of her fourteenth birthday. There were also sit-downs with reporters from Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, and Rolling Stone and dozens of radio interviews. Tomorrow, she and her entourage will drive back to Denver and fly to a date in Bremerton, Washington, followed by a few days of business in Los Angeles, a one-nighter in Anchorage, another in Vancouver, a video shoot in San Francisco, and four dates in the Midwest opening for Wynonna. Then, finally, she’ll get some time off.

The reason for all the fuss is LeAnn’s throbbing version of “Blue,” a song written for Patsy Cline 35 years ago by legendary Metroplex deejay Bill Mack. Soon after it was released back in April, it peaked at number ten on the country charts, but its novelty and nostalgia value and LeAnn’s stunningly mature voice made it one of the most talked-about singles of the year. LeAnn’s first nationally distributed CD, also titled Blue (Curb), came out in mid-July; the meticulously balanced set of traditional and contemporary country tunes entered the country charts at number one, setting a new record by selling 123,000 copies in one week, and it has gone as high as number three on the pop charts. Not surprisingly, she’s up for the Country Music Association’s Horizon (newcomer) and Single of the Year awards.

Not since fourteen-year-old Seminole native Tanya Tucker hit with “Delta Dawn” in 1972 has a teenage Texan made such a splash, but LeAnn is only the most visible of an array of barely adolescent Texas acts electrifying the music scene this summer (see page 134). There’s fourteen-year-old Quindon Tarver of Plano, who made it to number 31 on the urban music charts in June. There’s Radish, a Greenville band being touted as the next big thing in alternative rock—even though its leader is only fifteen. And there’s thirteen-year-old Jennifer Peña of Corpus Christi, who is being groomed to take the place of Selena atop the tejano charts.

But right now, on this day in Wyoming, LeAnn Rimes doesn’t seem like the leader of a youth movement—far from it. Dressed in a faded gray T-shirt tied at her navel and jeans and white sneakers, wearing no makeup, her reddish-blond hair pulled back, the little girl with the big voice is so nondescript that I don’t notice her until her father introduces us, and even then I have to look twice to make sure she is the prodigy who in public can look maybe a decade older. With unfailing politeness but zero enthusiasm, she grins and bears it and tells her story one more time. leann was born and raised in jackson, mississippi. she began taking tap at age two; eventually her instructor heard her sing and steered her toward song and dance. At first her idols were pop singers like Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, but she soon started listening to country stars like Patsy Cline and then Reba McEntire and Wynonna. At five, she won her first singing competition and told her parents she wanted a career in show business. “How I knew, I don’t know,” she says today, “but I did.”

One day Wilbur came home from raccoon hunting and found his daughter standing next to three newly won trophies that were nearly as tall as she was. An around-the-house guitar picker himself, he decided there might be something to this show biz stuff, so he sold his coon dogs to help finance her career and—when she was six—took a job selling seismic tools in Dallas, where she’d have more places to sing. LeAnn did some musicals and theatrical productions, but mostly she plugged into the Opry circuit around the Metroplex: Garland, Mesquite, Greenville, and Grapevine. “It’s just amazing what she has done,” exclaims Belinda, a bright-faced woman who nonetheless worries about whether it isn’t all too much too soon. “She’d be sleeping in the car as we drove to the next Opry, and then she’d get up on the stage and sing ‘Crazy,’ and then get right back in the car and go to sleep.”

At seven, LeAnn landed a slot on the Johnnie High Country Revue (then based in Fort Worth, now in Arlington). “She had poise, dedication, and stage presence,” recalls High, whose show is 21 years old—the longest running in the region. “She didn’t look like a pageant girl. She looked like a country singer, and she just come out and done it.” At seven and again at eleven, LeAnn cut albums, produced by local studio owners, to sell from the bandstand. She began singing the National Anthem at events like Dallas Cowboys games.

It was at a Cowboys game that Bill Mack first heard her sing. Mack has had his share of hits—George Strait went to number four in 1990 with a revival of his “Drinking Champagne,” which was originally written for Dean Martin and recorded by Cal Smith in the late sixties—but “Blue” took a more circuitous route. He penned the song while deejaying in Wichita Falls in the late fifties. Then, in 1960, he borrowed Roger Miller’s guitar backstage at a package show in San Antonio and sang the ballad to Patsy Cline. “Get that damn thing to me,” she commanded, for it was indeed right in her groove. After a local singer recorded the tune, Mack sent the tape to Cline in Nashville, but she died in a plane crash before she could record it. And that would have been that, had it not been for Fort Worth singer Polly Stephens, who cut a torchy version in the late eighties to sell at her gigs. Mack gave that record to Wilbur Rimes, who thought it was too old for LeAnn and put it aside. LeAnn disagreed, however, and worked up her own arrangement, including a distinctive little semi-yodel she and Mack call a “soul break.”

Wilbur changed his mind, and in 1993 LeAnn cut “Blue” for All That, an independent album produced by Wilbur and bankrolled by Dallas attorney Lyle Walker, a part owner of Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico, studio, where Buddy Holly cut most of his hits. That studio is now a tourist attraction, but LeAnn recorded All That at Petty’s second studio, a converted movie theater in Clovis. Walker, meanwhile, suggested to the Blockbuster chain that it carry the CD, a coup that gave LeAnn wide exposure. When All That sold more than 15,000 copies, Nashville came calling. LeAnn had auditioned a year earlier for Jimmy Bowen of EMI, who had told her to come back when she was eighteen. “I know I was kinda ready then, but I wasn’t really,” she says now. “He was right to tell me to wait, but I wanted it.” This time, she got it. As All That and “Blue” made more noise locally, LeAnn performed in a Dallas theater for executives of the Decca label. Wilbur and Walker were negotiating with them when Mike Curb, who heads the Nashville-based Curb label, made an offer of his own. Pushed by his own two teenage daughters, Curb offered to keep things in the family by letting Wilbur continue to produce and manage. That was all it took; LeAnn cut new vocals on “Blue” using “her thirteen-year-old voice instead of her eleven-year-old voice,” as Wilbur puts it, and it’s been star time ever since.

IT CERTAINLY IS ON THIS NIGHT IN WYOMING. Not long after our interview begins, LeAnn leaves for her motel room to get ready for the gig. When she returns with her band ninety minutes before the show, she is on, a different person. Her hair and makeup in place, dressed in an outfit just given to her by her godparents for her birthday—black heeled boots, tight black slacks, a black and white horizontally striped blouse revealing an inch or two of midriff, a red vinyl jacket—she radiates authority as she bounds into her dressing-room trailer. It’s rather remarkable to witness the ease with which she gives directions to people three times her age.

“All my friends are, like, between twenty and eighty,” she tells me. “Those are the people I’m most comfortable with, because those are the people I’ve grown up around. I didn’t have close friends in school, I had about one, and I really haven’t kept in touch with her because it’s been so hard. That’s just how I am—I relate to those people better than I do to people my age. Last night, at the bowling alley, we had a birthday cake fight. Everybody was, like, smearing it all over each other’s face. It was really funny; we had a great time. But I’ve never had a food fight before in my life. My forty-year-old friends were starting a food fight, and it was, like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’

“I don’t want people to think of me as a thirteen-year-old singing sensation,” she continues. “I want them to think of me only as an artist and for my music, so that I will have the freedom to do the songs I like. If I sing little kid songs about getting out of high school and stuff like that, I’m not gonna make it. I’m trying to appeal to everybody from four to eighty.”

That’s also why she doesn’t identify as strongly with Texas as some country stars do. “Country music is not just Texas—it’s the whole United States, the whole world,” she notes. “I think there’s a lot of great artists who have come out of Texas, but I’m going for broader appeal. I was very skeptical when ‘Blue’ was released as a single because it was very traditional, and I knew radio was gonna be hesitant to play it. They call it retro, but it’s true country music and it’s totally different from contemporary country, which has the pop feel. What I wanna keep doing is keep my albums so there is traditional and contemporary country through everything, so there’s a wide spectrum of music for everybody and for all age groups.” Still, even LeAnn, who gives the impression she had everything worked out all along, claims to be surprised at how fast things have happened. “I’m skeptical about how my career’s gonna go, but I’m very excited. Being nominated for two CMA awards, that’s like the biggest highlight of my life, ’cause that’s what I’ve dreamed about since I was a little girl sitting in front of the TV watching Reba get an award.”

By the time she hits the stage, of course, she’s the picture of confidence. She begins by singing the first verses of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” a capella—nobody else in country music is gutsy enough to open a show a capella these days—and proceeds through nearly her entire album, plus a few pop anthems (“Stand by Me”) and country standards (“I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”) before concluding with her version of “Crazy.”

Afterward, there’s a meet-and-greet, an industry practice whereby the star is introduced briefly but individually to a carefully chosen group of fans, local deejays, and winners of radio station contests. As Wilbur stands next to his daughter, handing her a glossy photo and saying, “This one’s to so-and-so,” LeAnn grabs and signs, shakes a hand and says hi, and smiles for the obligatory snapshot.

Forty-five minutes later—roughly twenty hours after she woke for the flight from Dallas—she hands her father her glossies and says, “I’ve got to go to the trailer now.” But as she turns around to leave, two teenage boys come up on either side of her. As she spots them, she stops and, without saying a word, puts an arm around the shoulder of each, breaking into one last split-second smile—star time all the way.

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