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Blue? Not This Girl

While her peers are doing homework, country singer LeAnn Rimes has gone platinum, diversified and become a factor in the GNP (Gross Nashville Product.)

April 26, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

It's one of those Southern California days after a heavy rain, when the sky is so blue and the air so fresh at the beach that it is almost too beautiful to be true--and teenage country music star LeAnn Rimes is caught up in it.

"I think I could learn to love this," she says cheerfully, standing on a narrow Venice side street while crew members check the lighting for the shooting of her new video. "I never really understood what people liked about Los Angeles, but this is awesome. It's cool."

The terms "awesome" and "cool" may tip off Rimes' teen status, but there is little else about her to remind you that she doesn't yet qualify for a driver's license.

Certainly not her success; the 15-year-old Mississippi native with the big, booming voice has enjoyed the most spectacular rise of any teen country or pop artist in history.

With her fourth album, appropriately titled "Sittin' on Top of the World," due in stores May 5, Rimes has already sold an estimated $150 million worth of albums worldwide--far outstripping any two-year performance by such youthful sensations as the Jackson 5 in the '60s or New Kids on the Block in the '80s.

Since arriving on the pop scene in 1996 with "Blue," a single on which she sings with a power and character reminiscent of the late Patsy Cline, Rimes has performed more than 200 concerts, seeing her grosses escalate to an average of $200,000 a night.

While her old classmates back in Dallas were still working their way through freshman English, she won Grammys in 1996 for best new artist and best female country vocal, co-wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, "Holiday in Your Heart," and starred in a version of the book that ran as an ABC-TV "Movie of the Week."

And her co-manager, Lyle Walker, says Rimes is just warming up. Besides scheduling some 100 more concert dates this year, she has recorded a song, "Looking Through Your Eyes," for the Warner Bros. animated movie "Quest for Camelot." There's also talk about her acting in a movie next year, and possibly a Broadway play beyond that.

Somewhere in between, Rimes hopes to write a full autobiography. "Some other books have come out about her and they're not always factual," Walker says, referring to some quickie paperbacks. "So she'd like to tell her story the right way."

Understandably, all this activity invites concern about too fast a pace.

Stardom is difficult at any age, but especially for someone 15. Nashville remembers all too well Tanya Tucker, the last teen queen of country, whose fast-lane excesses were documented in a 1997 autobiography titled "Nickel Dreams."

Maintaining emotional balance is even harder now because the career opportunities, including books and movies, have increased greatly for country artists over the last two decades as the music has gained in mainstream popularity.

While none of Tucker's first three albums reached the Top 40 on the pop chart, each of Rimes' has gone high into the pop Top 10, and her "How Do I Live" single has been on the pop charts for nearly a year.

"We worry and we try to be very protective," says Walker, a former tax lawyer who peppers his conversation with football terms. "If we see things moving too fast, we'll call time out and shut down things for a while so she can smell the roses.

"To me, the touchdown in all this won't just be seeing how much success she can have, but having her able to look back in 25 or 30 years and think of it as a happy time and to know that she made the right decisions."

Jimmy Bowen, one of Nashville's most powerful executives for years, thinks those around Rimes may be deceiving themselves. He feels that being thrust into show business at an early age is so dangerous that he refused to sign Rimes four years ago, despite marveling at her voice during an audition.

"I just wouldn't sign a child," says Bowen, who is now retired and living in Hawaii. "I would be too concerned with what this business would do to her personal life. It looks like [Rimes' advisors] are doing an incredible job with LeAnn, but we don't know now what price is being paid for all she's going through, . . . and I guarantee you she'll pay one."

For Rimes, all the talk about her age is frustrating.

"One of the hardest things for me is having people look at you and say, 'Oh, she's such a cute little kid,' " Rimes says on the set of the video. "I understand why people say that. . . . You only expect so much from someone 15, much less 13 when 'Blue' came out. But I don't call myself a teenager. I call myself a businesswoman.

"There are so many things that come up that I'd love to do, but I know I have to turn most of them down because there is only so much time and I have to have at least an hour of peace. . . . And some days I only get that when I go to sleep."

When the director of a country music video tells you during a break that the star is off somewhere playing, you usually expect to find the singer strumming a guitar in a quiet spot.

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