NASHVILLE SKYLINE: LeAnn Rimes Takes a Turn

New Album 'Spitfire' Clears the Decks on Her Past

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I first encountered LeAnn Rimes one day in the mid-1990s as one of my first visitors in my new job as Billboard's Nashville bureau chief.

Billboard then still had an actual physical headquarters in Nashville, on Music Square West (aka 17th Avenue South). They were fairly nice offices overlooking Reba's regal office building across the intersection, which I think still had a helipad on the roof until all the recording studio owners in the neighborhood complained about the excessive noise and vibrations.

After office hours on pleasant summer Friday afternoons we would often crank up some nice music, get out the blender to whiz up pitchers of margaritas and play Twister in the office. Until, that is, the Billboard Puritan police heard that some people might be actually having fun in the Nashville office and ordered the refrigerator, blender and boombox to be locked up in the office storage space for banned items. Along with the dreaded Twister board.

Anyhow, into this atmosphere one day walked a 13-year-old LeAnn Rimes, with her talkative, somewhat aggressive manager-father Wilbur Rimes leading the way. Wilbur and LeAnn immediately reminded me very much of the teenaged Tanya Tucker and her talkative, somewhat aggressive manager-father Beau Tucker, whom I had met in similar circumstances years before. Then, I had been convincingly impressed enough by Tanya's performances and vocal chops to the extent that I went on a summer Midwest bus tour of fairs with her and the Tucker clan and got my Tanya tour story and profile on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

But it was tougher these days to get a slightly chubby, big-voiced teen prodigy any major publicity. Wilbur talked a good story -- major shows and local press all around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. LeAnn was modest and charming. They left me some music and clippings and headed out on the next stop of their Nashville door-knocking tour.

LeAnn's rendition of "Blue," I discovered when I played it that night at home, was exciting and captivating. She was virtually channeling the very spirit of Patsy Cline in this big ballad that an old hero of mine, Fort Worth's WBAP disc jockey Bill Mack had written supposedly for Patsy before her early demise prevented her from recording it.

LeAnn's version was terrific. But it arrived in the wrong era. Mainstream country radio didn't want Patsy Cline anymore. It wanted Shania Twain and Faith Hill. LeAnn's single of "Blue" made it to No. 10 in Billboard in 1996, although the album Blue made it to No. 1. And it was enough to get her a foothold in Nashville.

Oddly, to this day, Rimes' only No. 1 country single is "One Way Ticket (Because I Can)," also from 1996.

The following year, both Rimes and Trisha Yearwood recorded dueling versions of the anthem "How Do I Live" from the movie Con Air. Yearwood got a Grammy and a No. 2 country hit with her version. Rimes went to No. 43 on the country chart.

But it was a pop hit for Rimes. Subsequent recordings found her focusing more on pop music.

Years of tabloid press coverage of romantic entanglements and strife and lawsuits and endless bikini photos of her on the beach followed, and you just started to wonder what had happened to LeAnn Rimes, the great singer.

Well, it looks like she may be back. Her new album Spitfire has an immediacy and a force that I haven't heard from her in years. She turned to producer-songwriter Darrell Brown for guidance on the album.

Such thoughtful songs as "A Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind," "You've Ruined Me" and "What Have I Done" suggest a new more mature, inward-looking turn for Rimes.

Guest artists on the album include Jeff Beck, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Rob Thomas. I'll be curious to see how Spitfire does.

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