Making Patsy proud
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Although she is just halfway into her third decade of life, LeAnn Rimes has somehow been a working musician for 27 years. During that time, the country singer has toured the world several times over, released multiplatinum albums, won a pair of Grammys, nabbed three Academy of Country Music awards, scored a Country Music Association Award, has an even dozen Billboard Music awards to her credit and is responsible for the single most successful song of the 1990s. In her spare time, and probably just to make us all feel both untalented and lazy, she’s written four books.
At an age where many musicians are just getting themselves off the ground, Rimes is a bona fide country legend who has had an entire music career already—anything she does at this point is so much proverbial gravy.
Rimes was just 5 years old when she began performing at talent shows in and around her hometown of Jackson, Miss. and then the Dallas suburb of Garland, Texas to which her family relocated. Even though she’d spent the whole of her short life in fertile country music territory, Rimes’ initial focus was musical theater. Indeed, she almost landed a role on Broadway playing the titular ginger orphan in Annie.
Thankfully, her path was not to be the Great White Way, and thanks to the timely intervention of Ed McMahon via Star Search, Rimes turned her considerable talent and commensurate focus to country music. By the time she’d reach the ripe old age of 9 years old, Rimes was touring nationally, and stunning audiences with her a cappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” before football games.
It would not be long before the entire world would be introduced to the tiny girl with the huge voice—and her ability to take audiences by surprise before thoroughly winning them over would extend far beyond the stadium circuit.
The singer’s big break came courtesy of Dallas DJ Bill Mack and a song he’d penned way back in 1958, called “Blue.” It’s a heartrending, old-school ballad about someone wondering why their lover can’t be lonely over them and it happened to be right in Rimes’ vocal wheelhouse. Musical lore has it that Mack wrote the song for Patsy Cline, who died before she could record it, a claim he has long denied. But Rimes sang the plaintive, soulful tune like she was the second coming of her idol Cline—even though the pint-sized transplanted Texan was a mere 13 years old at the time.
When the song hit the airwaves, Rimes’ voice, combined with her tender age, had the same effect on her exponentially growing audience as it had on everyone before: a blend of bewilderment and astonishment, combined with the realization that Rimes was the real deal.
It was a helluva song and a helluva way for Rimes to introduce herself to the world and, at 14 years old, she became the youngest Grammy winner in history for her trouble.
While she seemed every inch the ingénue, at this point, Rimes’ music career was already almost a decade old. “Blue” might’ve been a legendary song performed in the tradition of a country legend, but it was just the opening act for the talented teen.
Following the success of “Blue,” Rimes wanted to test her crossover appeal, and started crafting music that was less Patsy Cline and more Mariah Carey. But while her style was evolving, Rimes’ way with a monster ballad was unchanged across genres. Her 1997 album You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs included a barnburner called “How Do I Live” that began with the lyrics “How do I get through one night without you?” and went on to ask a series of similar questions that when sung in Rimes’ rich voice, pretty much ensured she would not actually have to figure out how to live without whoever she happened to sing the song to.
Unless you are a person who has spent the past 20-plus years in a state of cryogenic suspension having been awakened just to read this story, you know the song of which I speak. It’s the one that remained in the Billboard Hot 100 for 69 weeks, a record-setting streak that wasn’t broken until 2008. The single also spent 25 weeks camped out in the top five and 32 weeks in the top 10, records that stood until just last year. Rimes and “How Do I Live” are still hanging onto the record for most consecutive weeks in the top 100, and no one expects that accomplishment to be surpassed anytime soon. Even now, some 20 years later, there is no escaping the song deemed the most successful of the 1990s—I heard it just a couple of days ago over the grocery store sound system during a late-night outing for frozen pizza.
In the years since, Rimes’ career has undergone its ups and downs, and growing up in the harsh glare of the spotlight has meant her missteps—professional and personal—have been only too public. But Rimes has been at this a minute, and has met every setback with the same drive and resilience that led her to take the world by storm before she was old enough to drive. She’s also used her fame and the financial security that comes with it to support a vast amount of charitable causes, from cancer research to aiding disabled veterans to housing the homeless to helping prevent suicide, especially among the LGBTQ population. Through it all, she’s continued to rely on her incomparable voice until she was no longer standing in the shadows of legends, but has become one herself. Patsy Cline would be proud.
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