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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Impressive Rimes Leaves Question Unanswered

November 06, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

It was easy to tell from her poise on Monday at the Cowboy Boogie Co. in Anaheim how LeAnn Rimes, the new teen wonder of country music, was able to nearly nab the lead in "Annie II" on Broadway when she was 6.

You could also understand from her vocal range how she could dazzle "Star Search" judges when she was 8. During her hourlong set, Rimes moved with ease from the cheery, uplifting Patsy Montana hit "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" to the scorching intensity of the Patsy Cline smash "Crazy."

Mostly, however, it was obvious why the 14-year-old has become the darling of country music, thanks to an aching, Cline-like single, "Blue," that has kept her debut album No. 1 on the country charts--and high on the pop charts--for four months.

For much of her set, Rimes had the audience virtually spellbound--no easy feat at the Cowboy Boogie Co., where the spirit of "Urban Cowboy" lives.

It takes a solid performer to keep the customers satisfied at the massive club because hundreds of them demonstrated before the show that they are fully capable of entertaining themselves by strutting and strolling their way through a series of line dances with names such as the Tush Push and Funky Slide.

But you could hear the gasps of surprise and delight when Rimes took the stage and began applying that character-soaked voice to tales of sexual yearning and lingering heartbreak.

"All this at 14," a woman in the audience said to someone next to her. "Imagine what she's going to be like when she's 20."

Interesting question.

That's the one thing Monday's show didn't tell us.

This Dallas-based newcomer has every sign of being a star for a long time in country music, but there's no way of predicting whether she'll be an important artist--or even, in the strictest sense of the word, an artist at all.

*

The difference between star and artist is that between Crystal Gayle and Loretta Lynn or, more up to date, Shania Twain and Wynonna Judd. Gayle and Twain have winning voices, yet there is little in their approaches that stretches the boundaries of country music or touches us in original or illuminating ways. Lynn and Judd--like Cline herself--are irreplaceable figures who have infused their music with those special, elusive qualities.

It will be years before we learn whether Rimes can develop the insight and instincts for material, as well as the life experience, that would enable her to connect in a similar way. As strong as it is, her singing now seems merely a reflection of singers she admires.

That's probably all that can be expected from someone who sings about relationships when her parents don't even allow her to date.

Tanya Tucker, who was 13 when she first hit the country charts, is invariably mentioned when Rimes' potential is discussed. And there's a lesson to be drawn.

Thanks to such extraordinary hits during her teens as "Delta Dawn" and "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)," Tucker seemed an odds-on favorite to be a major creative force in country music. But the potential has been largely unrealized. She is still a star, but is not a captivating artist.

Will Rimes fare any better?

When she grows up, we'll see.

* LeAnn Rimes plays tonight at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut Ave., Ventura, 8 p.m. Sold out. (805) 648-1936.

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