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Throwback Thursday: LeAnn Rimes, ‘Blue’

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.

There was always anger lurking behind his eyes. Even when he took his meds, there was an uneasiness with how he walked or addressed you. I only ever witnessed the physical abuse once–but was exposed to plenty of verbal and psychological abuse which did near-irreparable damage. That was enough. I was 10 when I began to realize something was not quite right with my step-father, trouble bubbling just below the surface. But I was too naive, too green, to understand what was going on. All I remember is turning to music and shows like Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Boy Meets World to wash away reality–the magic of Hollywood was alluring and comforting. LeAnn RimesBlue, her debut album on Curb Records, was especially pivotal to my young, wide-eyed and still-innocent self. The way she could slide on the notes on tracks like “Fade to Blue,” “I’ll Get Even with You” and the title track, of course, excavated the deepest reaches of your soul.

That voice. It soothed whatever fears were griping tight around my throat. Whenever my father and step-mother were having shouting matches inches away from my closed door, I could hide away and pretend to be somewhere else, too, seemingly inhabiting a different life and time, stamped with that warm glow of country and western. When the tinkling of the ivories begins on “Hurt Me,” Rimes shakes you. It’s a simple, raw melody but captured the magic of a Patsy Cline ballad, recklessly pouring her heart out.

The hot summer sun loomed overhead. My hands trembled with a crumpled $20 bill between my fingers. My eyes moved across the cassette rack at Walmart, feverishly looking for that one and only title. Blue popped out at me. Rimes embodied who I wanted to be, the life I wanted to have. As the first-ever album I ever purchased on my own, it was a crucial moment. That day, I also sprang for my first cassette boombox: can’t remember the brand but it was mini-sized and led to years of play, from other albums as The Lion Kings soundtrack (don’t judge me, it was my first movie I ever saw in a theatre) and Patty Loveless’ greatest hits. I walked away not knowing how or why things would go the way they did, but I’ll never forget that blustering summer afternoon.

I wasn’t the only one impacted by that album. “Blue” became one of 1996’s biggest hits, leading to Rimes taking home two Grammy Awards at only 15: for Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance. There have been so many discrepancies about the song and for whom it was originally intended. The song was never actually written for Cline. Songwriter and musician himself Bill Mack told the story to the Grammy Foundation last year, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the song’s resurgence. “When I wrote it, of course, I had no idea what would happen 40 years later,” he said of writing the song in 1958, and you can listen to his original version here. “It sat in a semi-state of dormancy through all that time. ”

On how Cline came into the conversation, he said, “This was four or five years after my recording of ‘Blue’ came out. I went to San Antonio. Patsy was playing a show there. Roger Miller was there, and I forgot all who–big, big show. I look Roger Miller’s guitar–I got to back up a little bit here. I never said this song was for Patsy. Roy Drusky told me one time ‘this would be a good song for [her].’ Then, when he instilled that in my mind, when I saw Patsy, I said ‘I’ve got this song I want you to hear.’ I sang it to her back in the dressing room, and she said ‘send that thing to me. I like it.’ That’s as far as it went with Patsy. I did make a copy of a recording, a girl in San Antonio made a demo, and I sent it to, I think I sent it to Owen Bradley, really, with Patsy in mind.”

“I can’t say I wrote it for Patsy. I didn’t write it for anybody. I just wrote it,” he added. Case closed.

But it was Rimes’ uncanny resemblance to Cline that endeared her quickly with the country audience. It set the stage for one of the finest careers in history. Her maturity on record was so otherworldly. When she sang about going “out dancing in the pouring rain” and talking “to someone I don’t know,” you couldn’t help but belt along to “One Way Ticket,” a more pop-bent composition and rooted in her conviction. Steel guitar wailed in the background, too. You wanted to live that life–you wanted to be an adult not tied down by family or responsibilities and to feel the freedom of the open road on your face. “I have walked through the fire and crawled on my knees through the valley of the shadow of doubt,” she belted on the bridge, just before that famous key change. It was her first No. 1 hit, and it changed the game forever.

From “Talk to Me” and the slinky “My Baby”–in which admits her lover is a “full-grown man”–to “Honestly,” “Good Lookin’ Man” and “The Light in Your Eyes,” she showed the entire span of her talents. The thematic range alone is not something you see much these days, especially from today’s new crop of noisemakers–and whether she was delivering a toe-tapping romper or tearing your heart from your chest, there was a precision and ripened wisdom to her vocal, informed by ability to tap into every shade of emotion. She was evocative, even then. Eddy Arnold featured on “Cattle Call” (written/originally recorded by Tex Owens), which Arnold also recorded in 1955. The blend of their voices harkens to the classic Johnny and June mix.

The record boasts a swath of the most prolific songwriters, including Bobby Braddock (George Jones, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette) and Deborah Allen (Patty Loveless, John Conlee, Janie Fricke). The songwriting was drenched in unimaginable sorrow, and in anyone else’s hands, the songs could have become saccharine or fallen flat. Rimes excelled in nearly every way. Her father Wilbur C. Rimes assists as producer, along with Chuck Howard (Hank Williams, Jr., Jeff Carson) and Johnny Mulhair, and assistants Bob Campbell-Smith and Greg Walker.

Despite very public personal troubles which continue to haunt her, Rimes’ talent has enlivened modern music. Albums like Sittin’ on Top of the World, This Woman, Family, Spitfire and this year’s criminally-underrated Remnants display her dynamic array of influences and capabilities. She has conquered traditional styles 10-times over, forayed into pop, rock and jazz-infections. There’s nothing she can’t do. The tragedy is: people just can’t seem to let her personal life go and just listen to the music.

As I was reliving my childhood this morning, through the lens of Rimes’ magical pipes, I was taken back 21 years, to a time before technology complicated things. I was reminded of the pain and suffering I have endured and how exactly Rimes helped me heal and empowered me to become the man and writer I am today. For that, I am forever thankful.

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Jason Scott

Editor-in-Chief of the Badlands, spinning those B-Sides. Love Parks & Rec. Addicted to high-priced coffee drinks, alt-country and synth-pop, and never know when to quit. Got a cat named Jake--and she doesn't like you very much.