Thank Heaven for Little Country Girls

She's only 14, but child star LeAnn Rimes knows what she wants. Can Nashville handle it?

It's Saturday night at Billy Bob's Texas, and the cavernous honky-tonk is 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; and solitary drinkers. Billy Bob's has a number of stages--even a small rodeo arena complete with live, ill-tempered stock--but right now most of the attention is focused on the slender blonde on the main stage as she sings a song so full of steel guitar and heartbreak--so traditional--that your father might have listened to it as a little boy.

Billy Bob's sees more than its share of young country mediocrities. But there's something about this young woman that grabs, then holds, your attention. Perhaps it's the power of her voice or her amazing range; maybe it's the world-weary phrasing. More likely it's the way all these things add up to a goose bump-raising evocation of one of the greatest female country singers of all time, the incomparable Patsy Cline--summoned back from that day in March 1963 when her plane crashed to the earth.

The girl on stage is LeAnn Rimes--one of the youngest country artists ever to turn the industry upside down, keeper of the traditions of Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker, a beloved homegirl who built her reputation one laborious step at a time through hundreds of grass-roots appearances at regional opries, festivals, ball games, and rodeos. She is now the center of national attention because of "Blue"--a sad and supple lament straight out of the late '50s, as well as the song she's singing now. "Blue" arced across the country music world by moving 35,000 copies in its first week of release, debuting at No. 1 on Billboard's country singles chart. It has stayed there for 11 weeks now. The album of the same name, her second release, likewise has done well, spending the past five weeks at No. 1.

LeAnn is alluring in a sleeveless dress and works the stage like a pro. Every hand gesture and flourish is seamlessly connected to the song, and even if she seems a bit overwhelmed at times by the scale of Billy Bob's, she keeps it together, showing an appreciation of the classics with songs like "Blue," "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," and Patsy's own "Leavin' on Your Mind." She closes with a pop song, the overly familiar "I Will Always Love You." LeAnn moves through its histrionic paces with the poise of a gymnast, and the 3,000 or so who see her tonight respond with a standing ovation. She's hot property, No. 1 with a bullet. This is the first real bar she's played, but that's OK; she's only 13.

She sure as hell doesn't look 13. And you could hardly get involved in a faster, more shark-toothed whirlpool than the country music business. But LeAnn, already tagged as the next Patsy Cline, has jumped into the center of the spiral with both feet, betting that no youthful misstep will put her in the Country Hall of Shame that stretches from Spade Cooley to Ty Herndon.

It's a muggy, overcast day in Garland, and it's drizzling besides, the kind of day that buries you beneath its clammy weight. Given her star status in country music, it's not the home you'd imagine for LeAnn Rimes. No country gentility or suburban comfort here; rather, it's a warren of apartment buildings with occupants that run the gamut--Hmong refugee families, redneck cops, and Indian computer programmers.

It's where Wilbur, Belinda, and only child LeAnn Rimes all live, home base since they moved from Mississippi to work on LeAnn's dream. Although LeAnn first expressed her desire to sing when she was 5, her voice showed up before she turned 2. Her parents have a tape of her, only 18 months old, singing in perfect pitch. When she was 3, she was sleeping in the back 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'," then promptly zonked out again.

When your dreams are so full of music that you wake up singing--at the age of 3--the pull must be very strong. In Mississippi, Wilbur came home late one night from hunting coon and found his 5-year-old daughter waiting up for him with the trophies she'd gotten that night at a talent contest. She told him that singing was the only thing she "ever wanted to do," and so her parents 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 August 28, 1982 (yes, she turned 14 yesterday), it was a miracle, brought on simply by hope and prayer. And Wilbur and Belinda's only child fulfilled every expectation.

The family moved to Texas when LeAnn was 8. In Texas, she discovered the proving grounds for young talent that were the local opries--amateur nights in Garland, Wylie, and Mesquite. Then, at 7, 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--the instincts--that would make her a credible singer.

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