LeAnn Rimes: 25 Years Of ‘Blue’

It’s three weeks after the release of Blue, and LeAnn Rimes is beaming. Fresh off her first No. 1 record (Blue premiered on the Top Country Albums chart with 123,000 copies sold), the Mississippi girl was thrust into the spotlight. On this particular day, she’s getting ready for an interview with Entertainment Tonight. As her mom Belinda fusses over her blouse and the tie-clip mic, Rimes is cool, calm and collected. Her fast success still doesn’t feel real, but the 14-year-old soaks it all in. 

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Fast forward 25 years, the country star is as bubbly as ever but with a maturity that only comes with age. There’s a charming humility about her, as she begins our conversation a bit taken aback with the fact it really has been more than two decades since her debut. “To not yet have hit 40 and be celebrating 25 years, it’s hard to wrap my mind around,” she says with an infectious laugh. 

“It’s nice in a way,” she quickly adds. Blue’s 25th anniversary on July 9 not only marks a musical milestone (she has since gone on to explore traditional country, glossy pop, gospel, and meditative records) but a personal one. “I see it as a way maybe to close out some things,” she muses, pausing, “and to energetically celebrate the success I’ve had and dream up where I’m going. What happens in the next 25 years is going to be interesting and exciting.” 

Even now, Blue remains a marvel—a vocal showcase so profoundly moving and nuanced, it’s still downright mind-boggling. Whether she’s swooning in true Patsy Cline fashion on the title track, picking thorns from her heart (“I’ll Get Even with You”) or delivering her best yodel alongside a genre stalwart (“Cattle Call” with Eddy Arnold), there is nothing she can’t accomplish. Even a breezy coming-of-age anthem like “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” captures both her vocal vigor and youthful desires to be much older and much in love. 

Rimes originally recorded “Blue” (written by Bill Mack and released in 1958) for her 1994 independent release, All That. The record made little splash, but the 11-track project, which includes covers of Whitney Houston and Patsy Montana, was used to shop labels around Nashville. “I remember one label I was in talks with wanted to completely get rid of ‘Blue,’” recalls Rimes. “It’s so interesting that if I had gone one way with a different label what my life and career would have looked like. It would have been completely different.” 

A copy of All That soon found its way to Mike Curb, owner of Curb Records, and he signed her to a deal. Quickly noticing that “Blue” had the potential to jumpstart her career, the label sent Rimes back into the studio to re-record the vocals for a single release. “But they actually released the wrong version,” she reveals. “The one you’ve been hearing forever is me as an 11-year-old.” 

“Blue” became her first top 10 on Billboard’s country airplay chart and has since taken on the distinction of being a stone-cold country classic, right alongside Cline’s own dazzling “Crazy.” “It’s amazing to be a part of the fabric of American music. To have a place within that tapestry is beautiful,” she offers. “The song feels like second skin to me. If I open my mouth to sing it, it just feels like breathing. We’ve turned that song into a blues song or everything else. That’s what is beautiful about fantastic songs; they can be arranged and twisted into many different versions.” 

All photos by Norman Seeff

Blue was only the beginning—and she made it clear from the start she was never going to follow a rulebook. 

“With ‘Blue’ being my first single, and the landscape of what country music was at the time, it was so different. That really then unfolded with ‘How Do I Live’ into Coyote Ugly. Music has never really had a boundary for me,” she says. “That got my hand slapped a lot, especially early on. No one was doing it. There was this ownership wanting to be taken.” 

The many records that followed veer dramatically from style to style that finding a common theme among them is almost like trying to locate Carmen Sandiego. After Blue, there came a compilation disc called Unchained Melody: The Early Years (mostly of previously recorded music), a contemporary Christian set You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs, a poppier turnabout Sittin’ on Top of the World (featuring an exquisite cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain”), a self-titled covers record (anchored with one-off single “Big Deal”), and Twisted Angel

With This Woman in 2005, Hot Country Songs hits “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” signaled a significant turning point. In real time, the public witnessed an artist stepping more firmly into her own with biting, raw honesty and a willingness to keep pushing the envelope. Two years later, Rimes struck upon a true artistic pinnacle with Family in 2007, on which she addressed strained family ties and emotional pressures through songs like “What I Cannot Change” and the title cut. 

“That was probably the first record I started to write from the same place I sang from. If I open my mouth to sing, I can’t lie at all. So, I started to write from that place. I was going through a lot with my family at the time,” she muses, referencing a very public lawsuit lodged against her father Wilbur and former manager Lyle Walker, both of whom she alleged had stolen millions of dollars from her. “I felt like everybody could understand the dynamic of a family. And I didn’t want to hold back. 

“Being so young, having so many expectations put on you in the business, people wanting you to be the ‘good girl’ and not ruffle any feathers—that was the beginning of me coming out of my own shell in a way and really speaking truth, no matter how polarizing it could be.” 

Rimes continued her quest for artistic and personal truth with Spitfire, released in 2013, which she calls “the most defining record” of her career. “I was unwilling to do anything for the approval of anyone else anymore. That was about doing things and writing songs and making music that felt good and important to me,” she says. From cuts like “What Have I Done” to “A Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind,” she doubled-down on the visceral, evocative songwriting, paired nicely against the swampy “Gasoline and Matches” and the plucky “Bottle.” 

“I didn’t realize I could write that honestly without fear,” she adds. 

Remnants, released in 2016, her first on RCA Records, and Chant: The Human & The Holy in 2020stem from the exact same space. She’s no longer concerned about radio play; rather, she adheres to artistic integrity at all costs. Now, she simply leans into and trusts the work itself. “As a young woman growing up in this business, there was always a level of needing to please,” she says. “I started making music for myself. Not that I hadn’t done that before here and there. There are hits I have that I don’t sing live, because ultimately, I recorded them for someone else.” 

With all this talk about her recorded music, her live performance is miraculous to behold. One particular performance stands as perhaps her greatest moment on the stage. During the 2013 American Country Awards, Rimes stormed the stage with a tribute to her idol, Patsy Cline, performing a medley of hits, including “Crazy” and “Walking After Midnight.” A string arrangement accompanies her, and her voice is pristine yet pulverizing. 

“I think about it and almost cry. It was a moment where I got to honor someone who truly influenced every bit of who I am as an artist. When Patsy sang, the emotion that came from her was so powerful,” she reflects now, more than seven years later. “That came through for me that night. To be on that stage connecting with her music and having been connected to her ever since I started my career —there was something just really emotional about that for me.” 

Leann Rimes’ story, pain and all, is well-documented in the tabloids. Having grown up in the early-aughts, a time period now reassessed as parasitic in its treatment of women, evidenced through The New York Times documentary piece called Framing Britney Spears, as well as a poignant essay written by Mrs. Doubtfire actor Mara Wilson, Rimes knows exactly how it feels. 

“In my own way, I have experienced all of that and understand every bit of it. We had this way, and it’s changing a bit, but still have this way of building women up to tear them down. I’m still coming to terms with what went on in my life and career. The [Britney] documentary made me start to take stock of things I thought were normal but weren’t. Out of sheer survival, a lot of my memory is spotty from even my teenage years—of having to survive stardom and have the world’s eyes upon me. 

“I think there was a lot of denial that had to go into play for me to continue to do it. It’s uncomfortable to really notice the mistreatment, especially by the media,” she expresses. “Whenever anyone uses your pain for financial gain and entertainment, it’s a hard pill to swallow.” 

Such a carnivorous culture pitted women against one another. In 1997, Rimes and Trisha Yearwood famously both recorded a version of “How Do I Live.” While Rimes’ rendition was recorded for her You Light Up My Life project and became a massive smash and set records on the Hot 100, Yearwood’s performance found its way onto the Con Air soundtrack and became a hit in its own right. 

Around the two performers, there arose an oddly inappropriate sense of competition. “I was such ‘an adult’ at that time. That’s typical of our society—to pit two women against each other for the sake of entertainment. That was definitely a blow to me, personally,” muses Rimes. “I was just so new to the business. I thought, ‘Why is this happening?’ There were all these stories swirling about why it happened and how I was too young to sing a song in a movie.” 

It created “these feelings where there’s not even true feelings of any kind of resentment or competition. I talked to her actually during the pandemic over text a couple of times. I grew up listening to her my whole life and singing her songs. She’s one of the greatest voices in country music ever, so I highly respect her. People pitted us together more than there ever was an actual riff between us.” 

On her brand new record, God’s Work (out fall 2021), Rimes confronts the persecution of women with a song called “The Wild,” funneling a “scared rage” into a powerhouse performance. The persecution of the woman has gone on for too fucking long, she spits in the lyrics. Her venom runs hot, but it’s well-earned. “To take a stand and call it out is something new for me,” she explains. “It creates change and makes people want to listen and question. To speak some of the things I’ve been afraid to speak and to sing them and have that power behind it is waking up things even in me.” 

Another new cut titled “Spaceship,” an emotional lift-off with strings and piano, mines a deep-chested yearning “that I didn’t belong in this world,” she says. “Even, musically, there were times where it felt like the world wasn’t ready for me yet. What I’ve realized is that it is not just a personal feeling and experience. It’s universal. There is loneliness in that. It connects us. We long for a sense of home that is somewhere else beyond this earth plane.” 

God’s Work clips on the heels of last year’s Chant, a collection of musical meditations, and stands in stark contrast. More rhythmic-based, her fifteenth studio set, self-described as “World-icana” (rooted in Americana with global flavors) continues the important work of opening up her sound and allowing the discovery of rich layers in her voice, particularly as it relates to drums and other percussive elements. “There is something about drums that have always moved me,” she says. “I’ve never really played so much with rhythm. I’m always known for my ballads. I have some uptempo songs, obviously, but I’m usually fighting to find the uptempos. This record is the complete opposite. 

“It is such an extension of the Chant record but in full-song form,” she describes of the album’s scope, often aligning with the “inspirational, centered in a lot of humanity. I’ve written the most innocent to the profane. It’s the first time I really haven’t been afraid. I guess I keep extending where the fear line is when it comes to writing. There are some songs that scare me. I’ve trusted that I’m just a vessel for what comes through. I haven’t been questioning it.” 

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