“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