No-frills country classics garner Rimes a No. 1 hit

November 25, 1999|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

If the country music business has had a problem in the '90s, a generally prosperous decade, it has been a frustrating tendency to erase its own history.

A George Jones or Merle Haggard makes fine records and can't get arrested. You can listen to most country radio stations for days and not hear anything earlier than Randy Travis.

So now LeAnn Rimes makes a great record of country classics -- including Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and "Leavin' on Your Mind," Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose," Bob Wills' "Faded Love," Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" and more -- and what happens?

"I don't think I've read a single review that likes it," says Rimes. "They don't criticize the songs. They just say I shouldn't be singing them. Like I'm only 17, so I couldn't know what heartbreak is about.

"I knew that making this record was taking a chance. But I think it's unfair and just really sad something like my age is used against me instead of appreciating what I worked so hard to do."

Happily, she has something for counterbalance. "LeAnn Rimes," her self-titled collection of classics, debuted last week at No. 1 on the national country album chart and No. 8 on the national pop chart.

"I'm real happy about that," she says. "Like I said, I knew this was taking a chance. But if it pleases me and it pleases my fans, I must be doing something right."

Truth is, she's doing a whole lot that's right, and some of it is just what she's been doing since she was 13 and recorded a song called "Blue" that, as it happens, was written for Patsy Cline 35 years earlier.

The writer, a Texas deejay named Bill Mack, heard Rimes sing the National Anthem at a Dallas Cowboys game in 1995 and figured this was as close as he'd ever heard to a Cline reincarnation. He got the song to Rimes, whose recording of it both charmed the world and startled it: This voice is only 13 years old?

So Rimes has heard before the skepticism she's hearing now. That doesn't mean it isn't still frustrating.

"You'd think people would have gotten over it by now," she says. "But I guess it's going to take another record or two."

One of the most striking things about "LeAnn Rimes" is also one of the simplest and smartest: She doesn't mess with the music. OK, there's "a little conga thing" going on with "Me and Bobby McGee," plus a little added nuance here or there.

But when she gets to the likes of "Cryin' Time" and "Faded Love," it's just good singing of a good song.

"Why change something that can't be improved?" says Rimes. "If you know Patsy Cline's songs, they just can't be done any better. So all I wanted to do was put my voice on it. In that sense, it's really more like my tribute album.

"These are songs I've heard since I was little. I was singing `Lovesick Blues' when I was 5. My daddy was always singing songs like `Born to Lose.' These are songs I love, and the last thing I'd want to do is change them."

She also points out something else: that many of these songs are such standards they were pop as well as country hits the first time around.

That makes it even more appropriate to keep them alive with a record like this.

"A lot of kids my age, and older, just haven't heard these songs," she says. "I think it's good, as we end this century, to be singing some of its greatest music. I'd love to think I could help keep some of it alive."

Rimes' own path into the next century is only sketchily plotted out so far. She's studying acting and would like to do a movie next year. She also plans to put out another album ("it won't be like anything I've done before"), and she'll do some touring.

"I took six months off this year to do this record," she says. "After almost three years nonstop on the road, I needed the break. It was sort of like getting to be a kid again and leading as close to a normal life as I can. I feel refreshed now -- ready to go again."

Of course, with a Grammy, multiplatinum albums, countless country music awards and a duet with Elton John behind her, it's hard to project what else could lie ahead. She says she's just eager to find out.

"Sometimes I do feel like I've been in this business for a long time," she says. "But I also feel like in other ways I'm just getting started."

After all, she's only 17.

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