25 Years Ago: Trisha Yearwood vs. LeAnn Rimes in “How Do I Live”

Back during the Golden Era of country music in the 40s and 50s, it wasn’t uncommon for the same song to be recorded by different performers. With the monopoly Acuff-Rose publishing had on the genre’s songs, and the appeal in the public to hear older songs done anew, it was a fairly common practice.

But as time has gone on, it’s become increasingly rare to hear the same song twice, just from different artists. It’s even more rare to hear two version of the same song released at the same exact time. That is what has always been fascinating about the story behind the massive, international country and pop smash “How Do I Live” released by both LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood, and on the same day—May 23rd, 1997.

The story of how we got two versions of the same song is pretty crazy. It starts with hit songwriter Diane Warren, also known for writing songs like Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing.” Warren actually wrote the song to be considered for the soundtrack for the ridiculously-titled 1997 action movie starring Nicholas Cage called Con Air.

Shortly after Diane Warren wrote the song, she ran into LeAnn Rimes at a restaurant. This was right after Rimes had just won the 1997 Grammy for Best New Artist, and was one of the hottest names in popular music. Warren told LeAnn Rimes she wrote “How Do I Live” with her in mind, and how it was going to be featured on a huge movie soundtrack. Whether this was embellishment to get LeAnn Rimes to bite and record the song or was the truth all along, it worked, and the 14-year-old Rimes was in the studio the very next day recording her version of “How Do I Live.”

However, when the LeAnn Rimes recording was presented to Touchstone Pictures, they thought the subject matter of the song wasn’t believable coming from a 14-year-old. They also felt the song sounded too pop for their liking. And so the decision was made to forgo the LeAnn Rimes version of “How Do I Live.”

Meanwhile, looking for a more country version of the song, Touchstone Pictures turned to another hot name in country music at the time: Trisha Yearwood. Completely unaware that LeAnn Rimes had recorded the song previously, Yearwood agreed to give it a crack herself. Though the Yearwood recording is sold as the “country” version of the song, the production and instrumentation was quite contemporary as well.

However, listening to the two versions of “How Do I Live” side by side, you can definitely tell the inflections in Trisha Yearwood’s voice does give it a more “country” feel. The two versions of the song remain one of the greatest examples of the difference between a pop and country vocal that is cited by musicologists and others. Also, when Trisha Yearwood would perform the song live in subsequent years, she made sure to country it up even more to distinguish her version, heavily featuring the fiddle.

The Touchstone Pictures bosses were pleased with the Trisha Yearwood version, and ultimately decided to use it in the Con Air film, though strangely (perhaps due to licensing issues), the song didn’t appear in the film’s soundtrack. Meanwhile, when the songwriter Diane Warren heard that Trisha Yearwood had re-recorded the song and they were going to release it as a single, she called up the label head for LeAnn Rimes’ record label, Mike Curb, and told him Curb Records should release LeAnn’s version too.

What happened subsequently significantly shaped the careers of Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes moving forward, especially Rimes. Trisha’s version was released to country radio, and subsequently became the biggest single of her career, even though it only hit #2 on the country charts. What helped Yearwood’s version was pop radio also picked up on the track, and sent it to #23—Trisha’s only real crossover hit of her career.

Meanwhile, to outflank the Yearwood version, Mike Curb serviced LeAnn’s version to pop. Once again, the song only made it to #2, but it was the version’s longevity on the format that not only made it a success, it became outright historic. It only hit #2, but it did so on five non-consecutive weeks on its way to spending a whopping 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, which was a record at the time, and one that stood up for over 10 years until “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz topped it in 2008.

Come Grammy Awards time, the two versions of the song would be pitted head to head directly, since they both received nominations for Best Country Female Vocal Performance—the first such dual nomination in history. But only one artist could perform the song on the telecast, or win the award. LeAnn Rimes was chosen for the performance, and turned in a stellar rendition. But in quite an awkward moment, right after LeAnn left the stage, the Grammy was handed out, and it was Trisha Yearwood walking away with the trophy, likely rewarded by country voters because her version was more true to the country genre.

The implications of “How Could I Live” went far beyond one individual song. By staying true to her country roots, Trisha Yearwood was able to reap the rewards of the song’s popularity, but without having to compromise her principles of wanting to remain a country artist. In fact, some believe that many of the spins Yearwood’s version of the song received in pop were because some DJs didn’t know there were two versions of the song.

Meanwhile, LeAnn Rimes had risen to popularity in country music in part for her throwback traditionalist style, evidenced in her debut single, the Patsy Cline-sounding “Blue.” But as soon as she found such overwhelming success in pop, her career began to careen in that direction. Her next album, 1998’s Sittin’ On Top of the World was much more pop and adult contemporary in style, perhaps trying to chase the success they’d achieved with “How Do I Live.” But the album ended up receiving mixed reviews, and failed to launch a smash single. LeAnn never really regained the success of her early career, but she did earn critical acclaim when she returned to her country roots with her self-titled 1999 album of classic country standards.

The legacy of “How Do I Live” is quite remarkable. The conventional wisdom at the time was that releasing two versions of the same song simultaneously would cannibalize its prospects for both artists. But the exact opposite happened. “How Do I Live” became the biggest single of both Yearwood’s and Rimes’ careers. Later, “How Do I Live” would also go on to be named the most successful song in the entire 1990s decade by Billboard. The competition hadn’t killed both versions, it had complimented them, and two country women coming out on top.

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