WASHINGTON — She’s sold 44 million albums, won two Grammys, earned three Academy of Country Music Awards and racked up 12 Billboard Music Awards.
This Friday, LeAnn Rimes performs live with the NSO Pops at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
“It’s such an epic experience,” Rimes told WTOP. “I’ve played with a symphony many times, but I don’t get to do it as often as I’d like. … It just takes it and adds another level of excitement and beauty and emotion to the performance. Once you have that experience, it’s something you want more often. So it will be a beautiful night. I get really moved by it, so I just think that translates to the audience.”
Rimes has carefully worked out orchestral arrangements for NSO Pops conductor Emil de Cou.
“We play about half of the show with a symphony and half without,” Rimes said. “I have a bandleader that goes in and talks to them beforehand. We have charts that have been written out long ago, so he’ll go in a few hours before me on the day of show and run the whole thing with the symphony, then I’ll come in and run what I need to run. … I’ll go in for about a half an hour … and we’re good to go!”
Expect to hear fresh arrangements of familiar country hits, including “Blue,” “How Do I Live,” “One Way Ticket (Because I Can),” “I Need You,” “Unchained Melody” and “Can’t Fight the Moonlight.”
“You’ll hear a little bit of everything,” Rimes said. “We play the hits. I play some new stuff. I’ve been singing these songs, some of them like 20 years, so some of them we’ve played around with, changed the arrangement. It’s really beautiful. I’m moved and connect with these songs deeper now with the arrangement changes than I have in a long time. So if you’ve been to a show before, you’ll hear the songs you know, but it’ll be a little different. People we’ve played them for have fallen in love with it.”
Born in 1982 in Jackson, Mississippi, Rimes grew up in Garland, Texas, listening to Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. Singing in the mirror, she emulated Patsy Cline, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston and Reba McEntire, realizing that she’d been born with a special gift.
“It is a gift,” Rimes said of her innate vocal talent. “I never took voice lessons. My dad has tapes of me singing when I was 18 months old, just full-on singing. You couldn’t understand a word I was saying when I was speaking, but when I was singing, I had this otherworldly thing coming out.”
Before long, she was discovered by Dallas disc jockey Bill Mack, and by age 11, she had signed her first record deal with Curb Records. In 1996, she released her debut studio album “Blue,” featuring a breathtaking title track that showcased her powerhouse pipes during the vocal runs of the chorus.
“I was so young,” Rimes said. “I signed my deal when I was 11, and I was 13 when ‘Blue’ came out. It happened so fast. We went from zero to 60 in not even a millisecond. It was insane. No one can tell an adult how to do it, much less a kid. But it was everything I could have dreamed of at the time. Everything else, I had no idea what was coming. It’s been quite the ride; quite the 20th anniversary.”
The song propelled her to a pair of Grammys for Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance, as well as ACM Awards for Top New Female Vocalist and Single of the Year. “Blue” was also recently voted by Country Music Television as one of the Top 100 Country Songs of All Time.
“It is one of the greatest, I have to say, just something magic,” Rimes said. “A multitude of different things came together: me being so young, my voice and the fact that I did this yodel thing that was different from what people were hearing. Also, ’90s country at the time, this was really traditional for where the genre was at the time. It reminded people of Patsy Cline. So many different things came together to make it so special. Honestly, I still love singing that song. I don’t get tired of singing it.”
Rimes’ next big hit was “How Do I Live,” which was released the exact same day as Trisha Yearwood’s version of the same song on May 27, 1997. Which is the better rendition? That’s a question that will keep country fans busy for years. When WTOP praised her version, Rimes playfully called our bluff.
“You’re just saying that because I’m on the phone,” Rimes joked. “It’s a funny story. I actually recorded that song for the ‘Con Air’ soundtrack. There was a bunch of politics, craziness and B.S. — and mine ended up not going in the film. [Songwriter] Diane Warren said, ‘This is your song, whether it went into the film or not.’ They had Trisha record it and it went into the film. It had nothing to do with Trisha and me. I love her to death. It had everything to do with this crazy business. We both had hits with it.”
Either way, Rimes’ version reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, transcending country radio to become a mainstream pop hit. It spent a record 69 weeks on the chart and a record 32 weeks in the Top 10. It also earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1998.
“Oh my god, it’s the most beautiful, heartbreaking power ballad,” Rimes said. “I think people just instantly related to [it]. They can play that anywhere. They can play that at a wedding. They can play that a funeral. It just related to people’s lives in a way that was really powerful.”
More ’90s country hits followed: “One Way Ticket” reached No. 1, “The Light in Your Eyes” hit No. 5, “On the Side of Angels” reached No. 4, “Commitment” reached No. 6 and “Big Deal” reached No. 6.
Rimes again found crossover success with “I Need You” (2000), which hit No. 8 on the country chart and No. 11 on the pop chart off the soundtrack “Jesus: Music from & Inspired by the Epic Miniseries.”
“That song, I think, people related to in so many different ways,” Rimes said. “Whether it was as a love song or if it was in a spiritual way, it really connected with people on so many different levels. I think that’s what all the greatest songs do. They tell so many different stories [where] people can relate their lives to it, relate their specific stories to it, so it becomes this kind of worldwide perspective.”
In 2000, a much different soundtrack for the movie “Coyote Ugly” spawned the crossover hit “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” which became a pop-radio sensation at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
She saw a resurgence in 2005 when her seventh studio album “This Woman” launched three Top 5 country hits: “Nothin’ Bout Love Makes Sense” hit No. 5, “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” hit No. 3, and “Something’s Gotta Give” hit No. 2. The lattermost earned Rimes another Grammy nomination, as did “Nothin’ Better to Do” (2008), “What I Cannot Change” (2009) and “Swingin'” (2011).
In 2008, she won a CMT Music Award for Best Collaborative Video of the Year for her Bon Jovi duet “Til We Ain’t Strangers Anymore.” Bon Jovi isn’t the only non-country artist she admires these days.
“I’m listening to a lot of Jack White lately,” she said. “I love the new Beyoncé album, Mumford & Sons.”
As for her beloved country music genre, she’s noticed a definite evolution over the past 20 years.
“It’s great that it’s become a more mainstream vibe and it’s getting into so many different countries and different hands,” Rimes said. “I do personally miss the old-school country music. I miss that. That’s what I grew up on and I love it so much. It’s nice to hear people dabble in that every once in a while. That will always be my favorite. But I do think that it’s nice that it’s being more accepted worldwide these days and country music has really become a worldwide thing. I think that’s great.”
Click here for more info on the Kennedy Center show. Listen to our full chat with LeAnn Rimes below: