WHEN I INTERVIEWED country singer LeAnn Rimes in Wyoming last summer, she was doing pretty well. Riding the crest of “Blue,” her Patsy Clinestyle first hit single, she and her band and parents had flown to Denver on a commercial airline and had driven to the date in rental cars. This summer, for her set at a four-day outdoor festival just west of Grand Junction, Colorado, Rimes and troupe arrived in two buses, accompanied by a truck full of sound equipment. Early the next morning, they would hop a pair of Lear jets, provided by the promoter, to get to the next night’s show in Wisconsin on time.

It has been that kind of a year for LeAnn Rimes, still a couple of months shy of fifteen on this Colorado afternoon. “If I could put this last year into one word, it’d be crazy,’” she says. “I don’t think anybody could really expect what has happened to me. I guess talent and luck put together equals what happened.”

It’s one-thirty, and Rimes has just finished waking up, doing her hair, and eating a meal brought from the backstage kitchen. She’s sitting at the table in her bus, which she shares with her parents, Wilbur (her co-manager) and Belinda, and her other co-manager, Lyle Walker. The second bus is occupied by her band and crew. Sponsored by a steakhouse chain, both buses are painted silver and teal. They’re not, strictly speaking, buses, consisting of Peterbilt truck cabs hauling bus bodies. Wilbur, whose father was a trucker, designed the “Peterbus” so he could get the vehicles gassed and serviced at truck stops, which are much more plentiful on the interstate than bus service stations. He gets a lot of laughs when he pulls into a truck stop, but his plan worksand it saves a few bucks too. Soon Rimes will get her own Peterbus, which will be black and silver.

Most country stars, after their first year in the biz, are happy to have just one bus. The Peterbuses and Lear jets aren’t the only signs of prosperity for Rimes and her family: After seven years in an apartment in the Dallas suburb of Garland, they’ve moved into a house, also in Garland. The apartment had a small recording studio rigged up in the living room; the house has a swimming pool. The trouble is, they rarely get to use it.

In the past year Rimes has become the symbol of country music’s youth movement, as well as its crossover queen. The big-voiced singer won Grammys for best female country vocal for “Blue”and for best new artist, the first country act ever to snare that award. “I’m gonna go out to dinner tonight,” she said after picking up the second trophy. “At my age I don’t know how else I can celebrate.” Though she didn’t win either of the Country Music Association Awards she was nominated for last fall, she was hardly disappointed after years of watching the show on TV, she got to open this one by singing “Blue.” Then she took home three trophies from the Academy of Country Music Awards last spring. Her CD Unchained Melody/The Early Years, recorded when she was eleven and twelve, entered both the country and pop charts at number one, knocking Blue down to number two on the country charts.

With a ghostwriter she completed the novel Holiday in Your Heart, about a teenage singer’s Christmas. That will be published in November, followed by a Christmastime ABC Movie of the Week adaptation starring Rimes. She has been the subject of two quickie paperback biographies but plans to write her own autobiography next year. Over the summer the Disney Channel aired a special called LeAnn Rimes in Concert, and she’s hosting a CBS-TNN documentary about Fan Fair, the annual week in Nashville when fans can get autographs and have their pictures taken with country stars. She was also a cohost, in June, of CountryFest ‘97, a day-long concert that brought nearly 300,000 fans to the Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

Oh, yes, she has been working on two new albums. One, an as-yet-untitled collection of gospel and contemporary Christian songs she cut between the ages of eleven and fourteen, is being referred to as “the inspirational album” and will be released this autumn. The second (also still unnamed) has all new material and should hit the stores early next year.

That is what you call a workload. In fact, since June 1996 Rimes has practically lived on the road, playing more than 175 concerts in addition to her other activities. “We have to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” vows Walker. “Her success caught us all by surprise. We were honoring all the commitments we’d made and trying to take advantage of the best new opportunities that started coming in. This next year we’re going to drop down to about a hundred dates. We have to give her time to act like a fourteen-year-old too.”

That brings up what Rimes calls “the age thing.” Predictably, given her extraordinary poise and savvy, she doesn’t much like it. Just as predictably, it comes up again and again. Rimes doesn’t see herself as a role model or a heroine for teenagers. She has been careful to cultivate an across-the-age-spectrum following. Born August 28, 1982, Margaret LeAnn Rimesalways called LeAnn by her parentsfirst performed in front of an audience at age five, when she sang “Getting to Know You” at a talent show in her native Mississippi. Her family moved to Texas, and at seven she was performing at weekend Opry shows around the MetroplexMesquite, Garland, Greenville, and Grapevine. When “Blue” hit the national charts, she was thirteen years old and had already dropped out of junior high school upon signing a contract with Curb Records. Today she takes courses on the tenth-grade level through Texas Tech University, with a family friend named Teresa Stephens riding the bus as her tutor. Always an A student in school, Rimes scored high enough on the Texas Tech tests to skip the seventh and eighth grades. She especially likes math, the better perhaps to calculate box-office grosses.

Because of her performing schedule, she didn’t make lasting friends while she was in school. She has spent most of her short life surrounded by adults, mainly her parents, band members, and business associates. Of the friends who travel with her to keep her company, most were originally friends of her mother’s; only one is even a teenager, and she’s nineteen.

“I’ve just always grown up in an adult world,” Rimes says with a shrug. “That’s who I get along with. I don’t mind it at all, and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. I go shopping; I go to the movies; I go play Putt-Putt Golf; I play softball. It’s just not with people my age.

“I’m in a business here. I mean, I have a job. I have a lot of responsibility for this, so I don’t feel like a fourteen-year-old,” she points out. “It’s really hard to find any friends right now, because you don’t know what they like you for, you have no clue. But people I’ve known before I made it, I know I can at least halfway trust. People my age, it’s not like I’m doing the same things they are. It’s hard to involve them in my life, my world, because they don’t understand what I do.”

The most frequently cited aspect of the age thing is her songs. Invariably, they are not just adult, but strikingly mature. Consider “How Do I Live,” the song Rimes recorded for the movie Con Air. Executives at Disney, the film’s producer, rejected her version, saying it didn’t fit the scene, and got Trisha Yearwood to record another version for the movie. Rimes says the producers denied reports that they were squeamish about such a young person singing the song. Curb released Rimes’s version anyhow, and the two covers have dueled all summer on the Billboard Hot Country chart. The song is a big ballad, the kind Rimes likes, and the lyrics don’t pull any punches: “How do I get through one night without you? / If I had to live without you, what kind of life would that be?” When she sang it in Colorado, a pair of boysthey looked to be about her ageheld up a sign that read “LeAnn, how do I get your phone #?”

“I’m really not that conscious of the maturity of the lyrics,” she declares. “I’m trying to appeal to all ages, and I try to do great songs. I don’t sing about drinking and smoking and going into a bar and that kind of stuff, because that’s not me. But I don’t think I have to experience a lyric to sing it, and I’m not saying I did experience all the lyrics I sing.

“Hopefully, what’s made me so big so fast is my music and my voice, and I hope that’s what people are enjoying, not my age. I know it’s partly my age, but I want people to look at what I do. One day I’m not gonna be all that young anymore, and if all they were looking at was my age, they’re not gonna like me anymore.”

Though her voice may need a little more seasoning before she grows fully into some of her material, Rimes already uses it with more imagination than most of her adult peers in contemporary country music. She soars and swoops audaciously on Hank Williams’ profoundly despairing masterpiece, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” giving the often-covered song a new design. At the end of her interpretation of “Unchained Melody,” Rimes’s voice suddenly modulates up into the stratosphere. Even as you wonder what she knows about a line like “Oh, my love, my darling, I hunger, hunger, for your touch,” you’re stunned and dazzled by the vocal acrobatics.

“There’s been no song that I turned away because it was too lyrically involved for me. I do connect with some of those songs emotionally,” she counters. “When you’re born, I think you feel every emotion you can possibly feel, maybe not in the way that it’s saying in the song, but you do feel something. Anybody can relate to hurt, to being alone, to love, because you’ve had it in some part of your life, in some way. It doesn’t matter how, but you’ve had it.”

It’s not just her music that makes her precocious. Rimes takes part in the business of her career, meeting regularly with her managers, agent, publicist, and record-company representative. She admires Reba McEntire not only as a singer but also as a businesswoman. “If I could model my career after anybody, it would have to be Reba. She’s been around and been very successful for twenty years. The music business is not fun, and it’s not something that I like to do. But I have to be involved in it. It’s my life and I need to know what’s going on.”

Surprisingly, then, she’s got no business plan for the immediate future, beyond anticipating the time off this fall. “I really miss being at home,” she says, “but I’m doing something that I love to do. Whether I was a success or not, I would be singing somewhere; that’s just me. But I don’t really have a game plan except to put out the albums, do a tour next year, and make the best music I can. I don’t think there’s a certain plan I could follow, ‘cause things change in my career every day.”

But there is a long-term goal. “You know, you can mention Barbra Streisand to someone who listens to Aerosmith or Nine Inch Nails and they’re gonna know who she is,” says LeAnn Rimes. “And that’s my goal in life, to have everyone know, no matter what kind of music they listen to, who LeAnn Rimes is.”