Thank Heaven for Little Country Girls

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.

Today, it's load-out day in the parking lot of the Rimes' complex, just a few weeks after her appearance at Billy Bob's. Band members and support personnel--all local--are waiting in their cars as the drizzle slowly turns their windshields opaque. When the bus shows up, they'll load their gear into its belly and take off on a month-long tour that ends on the West Coast.

Wilbur answers the door, apologizing because he's running late. He's a country man, friendly on the surface but with a guarded air, like a bulldog walking point. It's easy to cast him as the oil-field equipment salesman he was before LeAnn's career expanded to take up all his time. She's not ready yet, he explains, inviting us to sit on the porch till summoned.

In the manner of all young girls, she's later still, but when she appears--schoolgirl-perky and pretty, her long blonde hair down to her shoulders--it's impossible to be irritated. It's also impossible to believe she's 13; despite the softness of her face, the giggles, and the girlish pronouncements of "neat!" her body has the contours of a 20-year-old.

It's her physical maturity and youthful age that cause the dissonance--the faintly disturbing vibe that threatens to undermine any sober assessment of her talent. Nobody really wants to address it; there's a lot of stilted tippy-toeing around the subject, but a subject it remains.

When country star Red Stegall steered LeAnn toward Liberty Records' Jimmy Bowen in 1994, the respected exec 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 Rimeses--including LeAnn--go to great lengths to find material that is "age-appropriate" for her to sing, pop conventions work against them. It's a simple fact that when a female sings a steamy blues number about her no-good man, informing him that his bags are not only packed but waiting for him on the street, the listener makes certain assumptions--and innocence is not one of them.

Sometimes you have to pretend harder than others, like when LeAnn 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, "My lover is a full-grown man." It's a schizophrenic sense of sexuality, vacillating between chaste, kittenish, and downright feral, a sexuality reminiscent of Wanda Jackson, the curvaceous rockabilly singer who delivered hits like "Fujiyama Mama," "Mean Mean Man," and "Let's Have 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 17-year-old girl ordering her first sloe gin fizz.

Although Jackson was a bit older than LeAnn when she hit in the mid-1950s--16--the two share traits beyond their ability to stir attention physically. Both were highly motivated achievers: Jackson had her own radio show in Oklahoma City when she was 8; LeAnn won her first talent show at 5. Like Wilbur, Wanda's father, Tom Jackson, quit his job when he saw that his only daughter was bound and determined to become what she called a "girl singer."

Like LeAnn, Jackson was an interpreter, at least at first. "I started writing songs when I was around 14," Jackson recalls from her home in Moore, Oklahoma. "I never really thought about what I was doing, but I was singing about things I didn't really know anything about." Whether you know of what you sing or not, the results are often the same. "I started playing honky-tonks and dressing for it more," Jackson says of her steamy rep in the '50s and early '60s. "I guess I was kind of the Dolly Parton of my day."

LeAnn 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" finds the singer floating alluringly in Austin's Barton Springs, wearing retro-cool cat-eye shades that fairly scream "Lolita!" (which, ironically enough, was a novel controversial in Jackson's day, the same era that "Blue"--with its moaning steel, brushed drum work, and elegantly languid rhythm guitar--evokes so well). The video is emblematic of an industry a little unsure of how to handle the issues associated with underage females.  

Wanda Jackson has second thoughts today about teen-age girls projecting such a teasing persona. "Probably it's not such a good idea," she says. "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 puts a few more years on her and these questions disappear; until then, it's cognitive dissonance a-go-go.

On the bus, LeAnn takes the couch amidships, perfectly deployed and awaiting questions. Load-out is a critical time for these motor tours. Things forgotten this morning may have show-scuttling repercussions a thousand miles down the road. The rest of the band and crew--the usual gnarly assortment of music-biz archetypes, all long hair and lined faces, gimme caps, worn jeans, and trucker's wallets--wear expressions of consternation. They have the rough, businesslike edge that country types sometimes affect, but they part around her as if she were surrounded by some invisible buffer, their faces changing from exasperation to smiles as soon as they catch sight of her.

LeAnn says hi to everybody by name; she seems particularly fond of the kids who are here to say goodbye to departing family members, picking up one little boy in a big, motherly hug.

LeAnn 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 it's the look of deep country womanhood, the province of determined FFA/kicker girls, some of whom were known to fight with each other in the lunchroom. And nothing was more terrible than a kicker-chick tussle. Rimes reminds you of one of those determined women, an uncheckable ball of female drive. You almost immediately put away all the Wanda Jackson-type questions, unwilling to risk a teen-age girl's most powerful defense: the up-rolled eyes, the wrinkled nose, the long, disgusted "eeeeeeeww."

The other questions bouncing around in your head--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--and she exudes one of the most terrifying attitudes known to man, the utter and awesome confidence of a 13-year-old girl.

Duffel bags and Anvil cases bump into the cargo bay below as LeAnn chats with the easy familiarity of a co-worker. "I really don't think I'm missing out on anything," she says about school. "I don't think I will, either, because I'm achieving a lot right now." She pauses. "It's really neat."

Although they don't directly address it anymore, the family has, in fact, 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, prissy little thing who got everything she wanted, and instituted a campaign of harassment.

Barbara Rice--LeAnn's booking agent during 1995--remembers it well. "It was a necessity," she says of removing LeAnn 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." Not the kind of history that inspires a lot of retrospective mooning, and LeAnn--ever the determined, independent unit--really takes to home study, doing so well that she's now ahead two grades, just one credit short of the 10th grade.

"Most of my friends are in the business," she explains, 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 adds, 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.? LeAnn, although vulnerable to the crushes such as the one she had on the son of an associate, 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'll just meet somebody, and I don't care if they're in the industry or not.  

"I want to have everything a normal person would have, basically," she adds. "Hopefully one day I'll be able to slow down and even start a family."

That might take a while, given the stylistic goals LeAnn 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," she adds, 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. I think crossing over is a neat thing, but I don't do it intentionally."

Her thinking is long-term. "I love pop music, but I want to stick with country as long as I can," she says. "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 40s or something. I've always wanted to act."

Marty Rendleman, a public-relations specialist who owns Celebrity Prints Inc., a photo business that specializes in the unique needs of--duh--celebrities, knows more about LeAnn's hopes and dreams than most. Or at least she used to. Until recently, she was LeAnn's manager, until the money started talking and names like Mike Ovitz's gorillalike Creative Artists Agency (LeAnn's current rep) started listening.

Rendleman heard about LeAnn through mutual friends who'd seen the young singer at Johnny High's and thought the family might eventually be in danger of being exploited; they asked Rendleman to help. She looked for someone to do the job for a year before somewhat reluctantly deciding to do it herself. Rendleman was well-connected, and soon LeAnn was singing at festivals, Rangers and Cowboys games, conventions, and other events. She went to the West Coast to win a Star Search competition, and when she was booked on a Troy Aikman Foundation event in 1993, she came to the attention of more than just the hoi polloi. She was 10.

Things reached critical mass for her, though, when two great stories came together: the plucky young talent and the old, fated song. "Blue" had been written in 1959 when country DJ legend, songwriter, and Old Country traditionalist Bill Mack, now the "Midnight Cowboy" of the midnight-to-5 a.m. slot on WBAP-AM 820, was living in Wichita Falls. Mack's spot on the dial has long been a trucker's favorite and one of the few places where a fan of real heartstrings-twanging country--what used to be called shit-kicker music--could still hear the great old names like Faron Young, Dotty West, and Porter Wagoner. Mack's work was much the same back then as now, doing radio work and writing songs, and he wrote one--"Blue"--for Patsy Cline.

Fame streamlines a story, connecting the good parts and ditching the dull and ordinary. Many articles about the role of "Blue" in LeAnn's career have been written--often by reporters without even a passing acquaintance with country music--and sometimes you can feel the hype taking over, the story of "Blue" being a case in point. If you believe the press, Mack, best-known to most as the writer of the George Strait-by-way-of-Dean Martin song "Drinking Champagne," wrote "Blue" expressly for Patsy. Then, heartbroken when she died, he put it away, never to see the light of day again. When he heard LeAnn sing, however--an event some reporters seem to think was attended by ringing peals of thunder and a shaft of pure white light coming down from the sky--he marched back and dusted off the song, for her and her only.

Pretty heroic stuff, but is it true? Mack says that it is, sort of. "Writing songs specifically for people? That doesn't happen," the long-time country music hand says. "I think the song comes first. Then you think of who it might be for." The Fort Worth resident--who says he liked "Blue," "but I had songs that I liked better"--knew Cline personally. "At the time, I was more of a Loretta Lynn fan. I was just beginning to really like Patsy--she was just beginning to show some energy," Mack explains. "I'd already written the song, then I imagined her singing it. She heard it in San Antonio--oh, about a year, six months before she died--when I played it for her, just me and my guitar. And she said, 'you send that damn thing to me.'"

Mack grows silent for a moment. "She could cuss like a sailor, you know," he says, pausing again. "The last time I saw her, I was getting on a plane to go back to Love Field. She was sitting at the window of the Nashville terminal by herself with her sunglasses on. It was about 7 in the morning, and I came up to her and said, 'Patsy, how are you?' And she said, 'Sitting here waiting to catch another one of these goddamn planes.' Those were the last words I ever heard her say."  

After Cline's death, the involvement of "Blue" in Mack's grieving process was almost implicit. "It wasn't like I said, 'I'm putting this away because Patsy died,'" he says. "It's just that I lost interest in it and never got around to messing with it." Perhaps Mack was burned out by bad experiences in the Nashville songwriting mill, and was reluctant to see a favorite song compromised. "I've written several songs that I just left lie around," he admits.

"All through the '60s and after, [Los Angeles producer] Snuff Garrett kept on me about 'Blue.' I might not hear from him for a couple of years, but each time we'd talk he'd say, 'That "Blue" song, you need to send it to me.' He believed in that song from the very beginning. It's weird, y'know? Why didn't I ever send it to him? I still can't figure it out, bless his heart."

Although Rimes was the only singer he actually offered the song to, Mack had begun thinking about dusting the number off before he ever heard her sing. "I thought about offering the song to Reba [McEntire]--she idolizes Patsy--but I never got around to it."

"Blue" almost didn't get to LeAnn. Wilbur Rimes thought that the song's wounded, weary tone was too grown-up and road-worn for his little girl. LeAnn--never one short of self-determination or confidence--rescued the tape from the trash, fell in love with it, and successfully lobbied for including it. "Blue" was on All That, LeAnn's debut album released in 1994. Possessing the atypical sound of local, rather than corporate, country, All That was an accurate prediction of things to come, right down to the inclusion of "Blue."

Throughout LeAnn's career, Wilbur had been paying attention to the details, and around this time he emerged with a talent that his everyday appearance belied. "One of the reasons the single did so well," former Rimes booking agent Barbara Rice says, "was that Wilbur went in and sweetened the mix from All That. He's extremely sound-conscious and very hands-on. LeAnn's sound owes a lot to him." Indeed, a few years ago, when his daughter had a showcase at the now-defunct cowboy club Borrowed Money, Wilbur showed up early to check things out. After eyeballing the club's sound system and talking to the sound man, he went out, borrowed some money, and rented a system for LeAnn that was up to his standards. "I've seen him literally take over a [mixing] board," Rice says.

Mack--understandably fond of the song--began playing "Blue" on his radio show in 1994, and truck drivers took their affection for the song to other cities, calling up radio stations and requesting the unknown song from an equally unheard-of local album. Curious DJs, wondering what all the fuss was about, began to investigate and--slowly but surely--a buzz began to build around the album, which, like Blue, was a mixture of old standard homages, light pop, and showcase chestnuts like "Unchained Melody."

"Unchained" is a song many others have attempted to their detriment, but for LeAnn, it comes off like a mildly strenuous workout, highlighting the raw power of her voice--a seven-octave range with perfect pitch--able to hit notes not on any piano without challenge. Recorded at Norman Petty Studios in Clovis, New Mexico, where Buddy Holly did some work, All That was a bellwether. Big changes were on the way, looming like a West Texas thunder bumper.

Marty Rendleman had been LeAnn's manager since the singer was 8. It was Rendleman's son who LeAnn once had a crush on, and in a February 5, 1995 Dallas Morning News High Profile article on LeAnn, Rendleman was quoted almost as often as Belinda Rimes. Rendleman introduced to the Rimes family her friend Barbara Rice--a talent buyer and producer for corporate conventions and other functions. Rice would become LeAnn's booking agent in 1995, a year of redefinition for the Rimeses during which LeAnn made the transition from local notoriety to real Nashville-style market potential. Rice helped the family bridge the gap between local opries and the big time. "I saw [LeAnn] at a showcase," Rice recalls. "I thought she had a phenomenal talent and great potential, and I liked her. She was a neat kid, and her mom and dad were genuinely interested in her."

The family eventually met with Rice. "We shared some thoughts, and their most basic thing was that this was her decision, whether she wanted to continue to move forward or not," Rice says. "So I signed her for a year, 1995." Rimes continued to work the ball game-festival-convention circuit, avoiding bars. "They knew they didn't want her in any clubs," Rice says. "LeAnn told me that they only wanted wholesome venues and gigs, nothing that would compromise her in any way. It worked out fine." Rice got LeAnn $500 for a personal appearance and $3,500 to $5,000 for an appearance with her band. "We had a great relationship," Rice says. "Our contract ended in December of 1995, and they didn't renew it, because she was already taking off and they'd changed management."  

Left behind with Rice was Rendleman, eased out by Lyle Walker, an attorney from New Mexico who had access to the Petty studio in Clovis. He offered to pay for making an album and to split the return 50-50; soon he would become LeAnn's attorney. "He showed up about six or eight months before [the split]," Rice recalls. "LeAnn was 11. He said that he liked the young lady and just wanted to be there to support her. I think he had other motives, but it worked, and you have to give Lyle credit. He got LeAnn in front of a lot of Nashville people and has done his job well."

Walker had very good connections with Curb, Rimes' current label, and was instrumental in steering her toward it. Back home, the move was met with varied reactions. "There's no animosity," Rice says with a shrug. "My contract was up; it wasn't renewed. That's business."

Rendleman was not so understanding. "Marty didn't make the transition quite so easily," Rice says. "They had an oral agreement for a long time. When I signed my contract with [the Rimeses], Marty said, 'You have a contract with them?' and I said that I didn't do business without a contract. She said, 'Maybe I ought to get one.'"

A contract was a short-term fix, but it couldn't forestall an act that was outgrowing its roots; Rendleman's contract was not renewed. "It wasn't easy for Marty," Rice says. "A star doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people, and it takes faith--a great deal of faith in an artist by someone who's outside the family, who knows [the artist has] an ability worth promoting. Marty had tremendous faith in LeAnn; she just knew she was the best singer she'd ever heard."

Currently Tanya Tucker's manager, Rendleman herself would not talk about the split, saying--in the words of Rice, who contacted her for this article--that the situation was still "'too painful'" to discuss.

Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker were both 13 when they broke: Lee with "One Step at a Time" in 1957, and Tucker with Delta Dawn in 1972. Tucker, a friend of Rendleman's, has reportedly had meaningful talks with LeAnn about stardom and what comes of it, bonding with her through their common love of cutting horses. No doubt LeAnn has already decided to follow a different teen course than Tucker--a notorious hellion who cut a wide swath that culminated during the early '80s with whacked-out beau Glen Campbell banging on her hotel room door, howling obscenities like some kind of disco werewolf--but it's always good to know someone who's actually been there, especially when "there" is a place as weird and twisted as the country music industry.

According to Barbara Rice, LeAnn copes with the rigors of show biz with a unique flexibility. There are two LeAnns, Rice says: one a steely pro, the other a typically giggling girl. "We were doing Sulphur Springs and we were waiting backstage," Rice recalls. "It was getting hot...I had this custom '86 Cadillac convertible, and we went for a ride, just in the country, and ended up going through a car wash with the top down, just for fun. After the show, she rode the rides. She can go from being a full professional on stage--do the show--to wanting to go on all the rides. She has the ability to change, mentally, from one personality to the other."

Two LeAnns might not be enough. Granted, she and Blue are the toast of the town. But incredibly, LeAnn can't sit still. In the hyperaccelerated music market, momentum is everything, and it's already time to get behind "Hurt Me"--the second single, done with the same retro flair--which is not selling nearly as well. It's time to get back out there in front of all those people, driven by the unique bonding between fan and band in country which, although much changed in the past 10 years, still propels the industry.

"Country fans--at least originally--have the most allegiance," Bill Mack says. "But they'll drop you in a second if they think they're being snubbed. I've seen it." Somehow it doesn't seem fair. Even Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, if she stays with the sport, will have to get back into rigorous training some day, but at least she gets a few months to bask in her accomplishments and be on Beverly Hills 90210.  

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 gigging was something Wilbur and Belinda had resolved would not fall on daughter LeAnn. Almost everyone who's been around the Rimes family has mentioned Wilbur's constant reminders to his daughter that none of this is necessary if she doesn't want to do it, that they can go home anytime. Unfortunately, Wilbur and Belinda seem to have been caught a bit flat-footed themselves.

"We're having to learn," Belinda says. "Our bodies are having to learn to adjust. When I get in, I have to do all the cleaning and washing; he's got to take care of the paperwork and people calling. For every booking we get, people are having to cancel four through our booking agency. It's really something."

"It's taken off real fast," Wilbur adds, denying that he might prefer a bit slower ride. "That's good; it's what the superstars want. In the music business, everybody wants to be on top."

"Right now, for us getting started," Belinda says, "this is the scary part...not the scary part, it's just that it's the worst part, every day, all day, trying to be there for people to see you and get to know your music. We're already exhausted. You can just get mentally exhausted."

Crowds are different from the old country crowds, too. "Fans today have come to country through rock 'n' roll," Bill Mack explains. "They act like they're at a rock show, too, and you've got to have security. It could be dangerous without it."

The Rimeses have gotten a taste of that lately. The last trip out--an autograph and merchandise appearance in Albuquerque--threatened to jump the tracks. "It got pretty hairy," Wilbur says, shaking his head. "People were just packing in, and we were trying to get single-file lines. Little kids were getting smashed." LeAnn had to be whisked off while order was restored, then brought back. Accounts posted on the Internet of her appearance in Calistoga, California, also mention unruly crowds at her personal appearance there.

"It is, but it isn't," LeAnn says when asked if incidents like that in Albuquerque are scary. "It's all the fans who are just so excited to see you, basically. It's really neat to see them. It gets kind of scary with everybody reaching for you, but it's really...they're the ones buying your music."

"The question I guess I get asked the most these days is, 'Will it change her?'" Bill 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 path really wouldn't be out of step with her Next Patsy identity--Cline herself was a varied interpreter, hardly stone country, capable of being quite urbane and sophisticated.

Perhaps LeAnn's Broadway jones will win out in the end, and she'll become a singer like her other heroine, Barbra Streisand--one without prefix or qualifier. Maybe she'll honor her pledge and stay with country, but in Nashville there are only two ways to go: singer of your own songwriting or delivery tool. As any good paperboy knows, you can find art in delivery, but in Nashville you're still at the mercy of the frightening, many-mouthed beast that turns the hopes, dreams, and efforts of songwriters throughout America into what you hear on the radio. That's not to be taken lightly: The quality of songs coming out of the industry these days is perhaps the lowest it's ever been.

Artists like Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins perfectly exemplify the trap. Both men are blessed with good voices--authentically accented, resonant, and real. The songs they sing--for the most part typical products of the Nashville songwriting mill--are miles beneath their sound. In McGraw's case it's idiocies like "Indian Outlaw" and "Don't Take the Girl." And Adkins was apparently so hard up for good songs on Dreamin' Out Loud, his latest album, that he had to resort to a resoundingly inappropriate cover of the old soul chestnut "634-5789" to round things out.

A good voice, then--LeAnn's strength--can only take you so far. LeAnn says she's been getting into songwriting, but if you make the bid for singer-songwriter credibility in country these days, you should be prepared to trade a few hundred thousand sales units for the rep. Just ask Rodney Crowell, respected everywhere but Blockbuster.  

Rimes can make her case for the singer-as-interpreter--she has to right now--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. If you've just broken up with your sweetie, a song about the pain of freedom rings differently a week after the schism than it will in a year. The way a singer delivers a song--the inflections, knowing when to smile sadly at the irony of it all or heave a tired sigh--varies the same way.

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. She's smart and seems to have every chance of making it, but one hopes she doesn't fall victim to "Mac's Syndrome." Usually encountered in film and TV, this insidious affliction is named after the once-ubiquitous Macaulay Caulkin and preys upon child stars. Most of today's respected actors can look back on a protracted period of training and dues-paying that gave them time to refine their characters and crafts and allowed their personalities to catch up with their talent. The kid star who discovers too late that he was making Escape From the Valley of Home Alone XXIII: The Rebirth when his competitors were taking classes, doing summer stock, and accumulating what you can't help but call life experiences, has been in the bony grip of Mac's Syndrome.

But unprepared is one word you'll never hear applied to LeAnn, who could sing in perfect pitch before she could dress herself, announced at age 3 to her folks that she wanted to be a singer, and has directed her whole life toward this moment.

There are always risks, but Wanda Jackson thinks they're worth the rewards. "I became what I intended to be," she says proudly. "There was never any pushing. Dad was thinking that I'd go to college, but I wanted to hit the road with my own band and that was what I was gonna do, so they decided to help me." 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 becomes the idea of anyone--from her parents to the pope--taking advantage of this determined young woman.

"If it's in you, then go for it," Jackson advises. "Don't be deterred. When you're young and you've got energy and dreams, why not? You won't be happy otherwise."

But there's something striking that becomes apparent when watching LeAnn's video archives, a taped record of all her major appearances. In the older ones, Wilbur appears a different man--relaxed, happy, every inch the proud poppa; 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; LeAnn is noticeably younger, perhaps 10 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 10, and it saddens to think of him like one of our presidents, whose pictures can be accurately dated by how worn-out and tired they look. All of a sudden, his frequent admonition--"You can quit anytime, and we'll just go back to how it used to be"--takes on an unexpected poignancy.

"I just had some people go over to see Wilbur and Belinda," Bill Mack says. "They'd just gotten back from one of those extended trips, and they looked like death warmed over. In walks LeAnn from a movie, and she looks like she just got up from a 15-hour nap." Mack chuckles. "This isn't a case of backstage parents," he says. "It's an onstage daughter."

All the great stories involve cost, and LeAnn's may well be one of the classics. The heart's deepest desire granted, then the bill. A child beautiful and talented beyond all expectation and correspondingly taxing, yet who could deny their child?  

Wilbur and Belinda are bound to stand by LeAnn; there is no place else they'd rather be.

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