When country music phenom LeAnn Rimes reaches her 14th birthday later this month, she'll have plenty of reasons to celebrate. "Blue," her debut album, is No. 3 on the pop charts, right behind Nas and Alanis Morissette.
Heady company for a Texas-bred girl whose closest brush with fame, up until a few months ago, came as an 8-year-old on "Star Search."
All of that changed in May with Rimes's recording of a torchy ballad called "Blue," a song written for, but never recorded by, country legend Patsy Cline. It quickly began to win fans and influence country radio programmers. With airplay came glowing reviews, as critics marveled at Rimes's ability to convey pain without betraying her tender age or inexperience. The names Rimes and Cline have been linked since.
Listeners impressed by "Blue," the single, will also find much to enjoy on "Blue," the album. Both evoke an old-fashioned, low-gloss country sound. But while it would have been easy for Rimes to include a Cline hit -- "Crazy" is one of her concert staples -- she wisely plays down the comparison on "Blue" (Curb/MCA). The most memorable cover tune, in fact, finds Rimes singing and yodeling "Cattle Call," in a cozy duet with 78-year-old country crooner Eddy Arnold.
When Rimes isn't underscoring the "W" in C&W music, she sings of heartache with enough feeling to convince you she's seen the inside of more barrooms than Burger Kings. One can argue with her choice of material -- much of the music on "Blue" is driven by adult themes of loss and despair, the essence of honky-tonk. But if one test of a good singer is the ease with which she interprets the part she's singing, then Rimes has to receive high marks. Anyone unaware of her background will find few clues to her age in her persuasive remake of the Deborah Allen hit "Hurt Me," or in the album's poignant "Fade to Blue."
Not all of the songs are lovesick laments. "I'll Get Even With You," which boasts the clever tag line "for all the hard times you've gotten me through," allows Rimes to project the kind of energy and innocence she displays onstage. The same holds true for the brash odes "My Baby" and "Good Lookin' Man." As for the album's miscues, "Talk to Me," Rimes's one attempt at songwriting, is strictly routine, and a couple of other songs are mostly notable for the vocal power and assurance she brings to them. In the end, though, "Blue" proves that all the fuss surrounding Rimes's radio debut in the spring wasn't unwarranted.
To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8155. Patsy Cline's Birth of a Star'
The release of "Blue" coincides with the arrival of "Patsy Cline: The Birth of a Star," a glimpse at how a young, largely unknown singer from Winchester, Va., charmed a national audience in the late '50s. Available on the Razor & Tie label, the album contains 17 previously unreleased performances that were taped while Cline was appearing on the Arthur Godfrey "Talent Scouts" television program in 1957 and 1958.
Twenty-five years old and eager for a hit, Cline made her debut on the show in January 1957. She quickly scored one, too, after the Godfrey staff finally convinced her to perform "Walking After Midnight." Apparently Cline thought the song was too much pop and too little country. But the mix proved just right for Godfrey's audience and his pop-oriented band.
"Birth of a Star" contains two versions of "Walking After Midnight," along with a revealing blend of hard-core country ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), gospel ("Down by the Riverside"), swing novelties ("Too Many Secrets") and moody ballads ("Two Cigarettes in an Ashtray"). The arrangements never conceal their age and a couple of them are downright hokey. But it's easy to share Godfrey's enthusiasm for Cline. "By golly, that gal can make you feel good, can't she?" he crows at one point. "You're better than Bufferin."
To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8171. Mandy Barnett
Twenty-year-old Mandy Barnett recently starred in the Nashville production of "Always . . . Patsy Cline." She has a voice tailor-made for the role, recalling Cline's full-throated torchiness while gracefully bridging country and pop. On Barnett's new self-titled album (Asylum), her ties to Cline's legacy are obvious when she turns back the clock with "Three Days," a tear-jerker composed by Willie Nelson, who also wrote "Crazy."
More often, though, Barnett seems determined to make a mark of her own. With the help of several contemporary songwriters, including Jim Lauderdale, Kostas and Jaimie O'Hara, she creates a series of alternately soulful, tender and sensuous moods, then caps the album with a Deep South rendering of the ballad "Wayfaring Stranger." The recording is one of the year's unexpected treats.
To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8172. CAPTION: More than three decades after her death, Patsy Cline, above, still influences such young country stars as LeAnn Rimes, top, and Mandy Barnett, right. The singers' works are featured on new albums.