LeAnn Rimes first experienced stardom much younger than most: She was just 13 years old when she released her debut album, Blue. The 11-song record, named for its award-winning lead single, arrived 26 years ago, on July 9, 1996.
Rimes — who grew up as an only child in Jackson, Miss., then Garland, Texas — has been performing on stages since the age of five. She earned spots in local musical theater and TV productions and singing at Dallas Cowboys football games throughout her childhood.
“I kind of came out singing, and that just developed,” she tells Kelleigh Bannen for an Essential Albums special on Apple Music Hits. ”I didn’t have voice lessons. I didn’t have any of that kind of stuff. It was just a natural gift.
“I had dreams of where it might take me,” Rimes adds, “but I don’t think anyone can ever expect their life to take off like it did at any age, much less at 13.”
Rimes won one week of Star Search and recorded three independent albums with her father, Wilbur Rimes, before Dallas DJ and record promoter Bill Mack “discovered” her and began working to elevate her career. Rimes first recorded “Blue” — originally written and released by Mack in the 1950s — when she was just 11 years old.
“[Mack] sent us the demo of “Blue,” and my dad threw it in the trash and didn’t let me hear it,” Rimes shares with Bannen. However, she recalls, when her dad left the house, “I went and dug it out of the trash, and I listened to it.”
“Obviously I understand why my dad threw it away, because the demo was awful. It didn’t sound anything like the song that you hear now, but because of my defiance, I’m like, ‘I’m going to show my dad that this song’s great,'” Rimes explains. “By the time he got back, I’d put that little yodel thing in there. Then he was like, ‘Oh, it’s like a different song.'”
Rimes’ version of “Blue,” re-released in 1996 after she signed with Curb Records, became a Top 10 country chart hit and reached the Top 30 of the all-genre Billboard Hot 100. It earned Rimes a Best Female Country Vocal Performance Grammy Awards trophy in 1997, and Mack the Grammy for Best Country Song. It was also nominated for Single of the Year at the 1996 CMA Awards and won both Song and Single of the Year at the 1997 ACM Awards.
Also in 1997, on the strength of Blue and its title track, Rimes won the Grammys’ Best New Artist award, becoming both the youngest Grammy winner to date and the first country Best New Artist winner. Additionally, she won the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Female Vocalist honor and the Country Music Association’s Horizon Award (now New Artist of the Year), for which she had also been nominated in 1996. Rimes remains the youngest person to ever be nominated and win at the CMA Awards.
“There’s something about [“Blue”] that’s just so classic …,” Rimes reflects. “It brought kind of the roots of country music into a genre in the ’90s that was very, very different. That was a very different sound for the time.”
After “Blue,” Rimes released “Hurt Me,” “One Way Ticket (Because I Can)” and “Unchained Melody” as singles from Blue in 1996; they reached No. 43, No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, on the country chart. A fifth and final single from the record, “The Light in Your Eyes,” was released in 1997 and peaked at No. 5.
Funny enough, “The Light in Your Eyes” was intended to be the first single from Blue. So the story goes, the song was sent to radio in a press kit that also included short clips of “Blue” and two other songs, and the reaction to “Blue” was so strong that it replaced “The Light in Your Eyes” as the lead single.
“We had made a video and everything for it … I don’t remember about exactly how ‘Blue’ was chosen, but I think we all kind of had this feeling that it was so different than anything else,” Rimes tells Bannen. “I think that was kind of my trajectory, always, was like, ‘Who am I outside of what everyone else is doing?’ That’s always how I have kind of seen myself: ‘What makes me unique? What can I do that other people aren’t doing right now?'”
As a whole, Blue debuted at No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard 200, eventually peaking at No. 3. It was also a No. 1 album on both the Top Country Albums and Contemporary Christian Albums charts, and on the Canadian country albums chart, and a 1997 ACM and CMA Album of the Year nominee.
Additionally, Blue earned Rimes comparisons to late country legend Patsy Cline, whom Rimes admits was “such a huge part of how I created my sound.”
“I listened to so many different artists growing up — female artists — and took something from each of them,” she says. “From her, really it was about this true, honest, emotional connection, and the way that she could just take you to a place that you don’t normally go within yourself when you listened to her music.”
Looking back, Rimes recognizes that Blue helped set her on a career path that allowed her to defy labels and do things her own way. “There was a real defiance, in a way — but in a good way — that I was just going to do the things that I loved, and I was going to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, and I was going to speak to truth in the way I knew how as a kid,” she notes.
“It was clearly set out for everyone on that record,” Rimes adds, “more so than I realized, or anybody realized at the time.”
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