Aprodigy at 13; a country music outcast at 18. LeAnn Rimes, the little girl who once crooned "Blue" and sold more than 15 million albums, was going through a very public version of teenage rebellion. She sued her father-manager and her record label. Moved to Los Angeles amid rumors of partying and excessive shopping sprees. Married at 19. Proclaimed independence at 20 by donning skimpy dresses and recording an abysmal teen-pop album, 2002's "Twisted Angel."
It seemed Rimes might become just another sad story of a child star burning bright, then burning out. But the Garland, Tex.-raised singer's tale has taken a surprisingly sunny turn.
Today, at 22, Rimes is done with her star-tripping ways. Her marriage to dancer Dean Sheremet endures. She left Los Angeles two years ago for the more stable, family-oriented Nashville. She's reconciled with her father, Wilbur Rimes, and spent much of 2004 recording "This Woman," a studio album worthy of the talent that propelled her from local shows to national stardom with her 1996 debut, "Blue."
Her latest CD, released Tuesday, has already produced a hit. The refreshing "Nothin' 'Bout Love Makes Sense" is her first country top 10 in four years.
"I'm at such an incredible place in my life," Rimes says by phone from her home. "I've been married for three years next month, and we've been together for four years. My dad and my mom and I have never had as good of a relationship as we do now.
"I've been through all the hard stuff. I hope I've been through enough of it to last me for a while."
Simply maturing may not seem like an accomplishment but surviving the spotlight and thriving is no small task.
"Most child stars don't come out of this very well," says Dann Huff, who produced the new album. "And she's only going to get better."
"This Woman" showcases an artist, not just a voice. Rimes spent most of her career singing songs handed to her by record producers and label executives. But on this album, she called the shots. She blossomed as a songwriter, co-writing three tunes. She picked her own producer, Huff, and gathered a batch of 12 solid country-pop tunes.
Rimes's voice is far and away her strongest selling point. Rich and worldly, it belied her young age -- especially when she tackled a vintage-sounding country song like "Blue," which Bill Mack originally wrote for the late Patsy Cline. But as she cranked out albums full of mediocre material, she lost focus. Her interpretive skills couldn't catch up with the pace. She became a singer who hadn't a clue how to use her great voice.
"Up until she was 20 years old, 21 years old, she was a freak-of-nature singer," Huff says by phone from Nashville. "She was a kid with a voice from God. But when you're a kid, you're a kid. She sings great, she entertains and she performs well, but until you are an adult, you have no experiences, you haven't lived life."
Rimes has been gathering those life experiences, and it shows. There's a marked maturity to "This Woman."
"She's a young woman now," Huff says. "What I saw as we were making this record was an emerging artist, a real artist with a point of view who is eager to say something and with the talent to say something."
The new album flows seamlessly from rock-inspired numbers to folk-quiet ballads, all self-assured and polished, but with an underlying, organic country sound.
"Every stage, every album has been a search in trying to find exactly what my sound was," Rimes says. "People won't ever let me forget that I was 13 singing 'Blue.' But I found that, I found my own sound."
For so much of her career she's been the singing puppet, coaxed into belting a variety of styles -- country, pop, R&B, contemporary Christian, standards -- and selling millions of records at breakneck speed. Early on, she released four CDs in two years, each one aimed at a different demographic.
Now she's enjoying the freedom to be her own person.
"My roots are in country music. I've been blessed that I can sing anything, but country is always there. This is a country record, but it's my kind of country."
And as ill-conceived as it was, the album "Twisted Angel," her flirtation with pop music, helped Rimes get to this point. She needed to get that disc out of her system. Collaborating with producer-songwriter Desmond Child, who's worked with Cher and Ricky Martin, Rimes co-wrote a few disposable songs and took a few naughty photographs. There she was wearing seductive outfits with plunging necklines and rising hemlines. It was all part of her new image; she had gone from a wholesome adolescent to a 20-year-old vixen.
"Twisted Angel" was a commercial disappointment. It produced no hits on pop or country radio and sold a respectable but hardly spectacular 500,000 copies. But by the time that record hit stores, the legal dust of her $7 million lawsuit against her father, her former manager, had settled. She had also renegotiated with Curb Records after taking label honchos to court in an attempt to get out of the contract she had signed when she was 13.
Rimes still stands by the album.
"I still enjoy listening to it," she says. "It's nothing I ever apologize for because there's nothing wrong in doing it. I wanted to experiment. I wanted to try something new. It was just a different time in my life, and I was influenced by different things."
And she's philosophic about the crazy ups and downs of her life: winning two Grammy Awards at 13, becoming tabloid fodder. In addition to the lawsuits, she launched petty attacks against her father and record label while hosting the 36th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in 2001. She opened the show by wearing a glittery T-shirt emblazoned with "Daddy's $" and then sang a ditty in which she slammed her dad and Curb Records.
At one point, her relationship with her father was so broken that they were communicating through lawyers. He accused her of frivolously spending money -- buying a $150,000 Ferrari and a $350,000 Bentley -- running up credit card charges for liquor and living the glitzy high life in her Los Angeles house, far away from both parents.
Marriage has been a stabilizing force, she says. So has adulthood.
"I would not change anything. . . . Having the last decade and experience behind me, I'm a really strong woman at 22. I don't think there's anyone at this stage that could be as strong as I am."
She's also learned how to reflect. Rimes goes back to early 1997, the night of the Grammy Awards, as an example. Back then, it didn't dawn on her that she had made history by winning best new artist. She was the youngest artist to receive a major award and only the second country artist to win that particular honor.
"I had a 102 fever that night and I felt really sick. I just wanted to go home."
At 13, she was too young to understand the impact.
"It just didn't register then. Not until recently did I realize that I have accomplished so much in my career that most artists don't accomplish in their entire lives."
Huff, her producer, has children Rimes's age. He marvels at how she's emerged from early stardom relatively unscathed.
"She had the best and probably some of the most topsy-turvy times because of the excess of being a star at 13," he says. "I don't wish success for anybody at that age. But she's not jaded. Somebody with that kind of success, you would figure you have to allow for some degree of laziness or looseness as far as work ethic. But she has an old-school work ethic that I find extremely refreshing. She's punctual; she's always prepared. She doesn't wing it."
Now it's time to get busy. Rimes plans to keep herself visible this year, promoting "This Woman." There are more singles to release from the album, including the stunning ballad "Probably Wouldn't Be This Way," a heartbreaking story about love and loss. She'll host the third season of "Nashville Star" on the USA cable network, beginning March 1.
"People, when they listen to this record, will take away a piece of me, and I really love that," she says.
"I am human. I do make decisions and mistakes. But I'm now a woman and not the same little girl that sang 'Blue.'
" 'This Woman' is the first time people have really seen me as a woman and as an all-around artist, not just as a voice. I couldn't be happier and more confident with my music."