I don’t care that shortly after the release of this album, LeAnn Rimes immediately began transitioning towards pop. I don’t care what kind of dirt the tabloids dug up on her in subsequent years that have left some fans with a sour taste in their mouths. All I know is that Blue by LeAnn Rimes, which is enjoying its 25th Anniversary in 2021, is one of the best country music records to be released in the 90’s era, if not ever. And to this day, so many of the songs of Blue still hold up, and so do the lessons it taught us about country music.
The story of Blue is pretty improbable. Originally born in Jackson, Mississippi, but raised in Garland, TX, LeAnn Rimes was an accomplished singer touring around the country with her father by the time she was 9. When she met the legendary local Dallas DJ Bill Mack (who died in 2020), a cross generational nexus occurred, and when Rimes was 11, she recorded the song “Blue” that Bill Mack had written and recorded for himself way back in 1958 for Starday Records.
Though popular lore continues to get it wrong, “Blue” was not originally written for Patsy Cline. The reason the rumor persists is because LeAnn sounds so similar to Patsy when singing the song, and the production and instrumentation is so indicative of the Cline era in country, you don’t want to believe any different. But even without a direct connection to Patsy, what “Blue” did was what awaken people’s yearning for that classic country sound, which as we can attest here in 2021 is constantly getting lost in country music, even though when it’s given an opportunity, people often love it.
“Blue” wasn’t “neotraditional,” it was classic country through and through, and became its own phenomenon. Though it only reached #10 on the country charts since radio really didn’t know what to do with it, the song ended up being nominated for the 1996 CMA Song of the Year, winning the ACM Song of the Year, and it also won the Grammy for Best Country Song for Bill Mack, and Best Female Country Vocal Performance for LeAnn Rimes. Today, “Blue” is nothing short of a country standard, and all of this is from a song that was nearly 40-years-old when it rose to peak commercial prominence, and was released by a performer who was 13-years-old at the time.
But the story of the album Blue ranges far beyond one song. It was a strikingly classic record for the time, with numerous stabs at heartbreak beyond the title track. The second song on the album “Hurt Me” picks up where “Blue” leaves off, which is revitalizing the classic approach to a country music tearjerker, and allowing the exquisite and incredibly mature voice of LeAnn Rimes to soar. The album ends with another stone cold emotional haymaker in “Fade To Blue.”
LeAnn Rimes even recorded a version of Tex Ritter’s “Cattle Call” for the record, and with the legendary Eddy Arnold. LeAnn’s yodels and moans were like something that hadn’t been heard in country music in decades. A later version of the record also included a rendition of “Unchained Melody,” which became a #3 hit in country music on its own.
But what makes Blue so cool is not just that it found success with old songs from such a young singer. It’s that old songs were made cool to a younger audience, while the older audience who felt abandoned by country music of the era found someone they could root for as well.
Blue saved country music in its time, and one of the ways it did so was by also delivering songs that were relevant to its time. The only #1 single from the album (and surprisingly, the only #1 single LeAnn Rimes ever minted in country) came in the form of “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” It was the combination of a classic country theme and a bit more of a contemporary approach that once again appealed to both sides of country music’s generational divide, and resulted in a smash that holds up even today, despite the treble-heavy mix.
Of course, with LeAnn Rimes only being 13 when Blue was released, some of the material was hard to believe coming from this young woman’s personal experiences like “My Baby” and “Good Lookin’ Man.” But if you closed your eyes, and it was impossible to not believe every word being sung because of the power and emotion behind LeAnn’s voice.
Another Top 5 song from the album called “The Light In Your Eyes” seems less LeAnn singing from experience, and more like something she was trying to tell herself as widespread mainstream success put her squarely in the spotlight where she would have to learn how to transition from a girl to a woman. Featuring steel guitarists Bruce Bouton and Paul Franklin, fiddle by Larry Franklin, and a bunch of other ace players, Blue eventually went on to be certified 6x Platinum.
But in some ways LeAnn Rimes became a victim of her own success. Blue was so victorious as a debut album, the only direction up was pop, so that is where LeAnn went. It probably also didn’t help that her father Wilbur at times was worried more about the money than protecting his daughter, and she was signed to the spurious Curb Records, who she would go to war with in subsequent years. In 2000, LeAnn would sue both her father and Curb. As we see over and over in entertainment, a young and impressionable performer can become troubled in their adult life by all the attention and fawning they receive at an impressionable age.
LeAnn Rimes went on to have more successful singles in her career, including 1997’s “How Do I Live.” While LeAnn’s version of the song was climbing the pop charts and eventually peaking at #2, Trisha Yearwood was singing a more country version, which reached #2 in country. Both singles were released on the same day: May 23rd, 1997. It was quite the spectacle, and LeAnn’s success with the song in pop hastened her transition away from country.
But LeAnn Rimes never had a more successful album in her career than Blue. No different than the debut albums of guys such as George Strait and Randy Travis, Blue shocked country music by being unapologetically traditional, and wildly successful. It awakened a sound that had been allowed to go dormant in country music, but when exposed to the masses, resonated widely.
When the discussion turns to the women of country and 90’s nostalgia, it often centers around Shania, Trisha, and Martina. But when speaking of albums specifically, Blue by LeAnn Rimes might be the best overall selection from the era. It was also an album that once again proved that certain sounds and sentiments in country music are timeless. Just as listeners in the 90’s yearned for the sound of Patsy Cline, many listeners today yearn for the sound of the 90’s, which for LeAnn Rimes, sounded like the 50’s and 60’s, or like country music has always sounded, or at least, like country music is supposed to.
Two Guns Up (9/10)
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