Writing blues into country

Writing blues into country

LeAnn Rimes has always been in the news — for both the right and wrong reasons. Now her new album, ‘Spitfire’, is making news for mining the tabloid turmoil of her recent private life, writes Alan Light .

“My life is one very large country song,” said LeAnn Rimes. “What I’ve lived in the last four years is country music at its finest.”

She was referring to the time she has spent as a staple in the tabloids, attacked from many quarters not only for leaving her husband, but also for breaking up another celebrity marriage. Rimes, though, has never had what you would call an ordinary life.

In 1997, at 14, she won a Grammy Award and was the first country act to win the best new artiste category. Since then she has sold more than 20 million records in the United States, with eight albums in the country Top 10 and a No 2 pop hit with How Do I Live.
Even her early career, though, was fraught with controversy. In 2000, Rimes filed multiple lawsuits concerning her income and her contracts, first against her father and her former manager, and then against her record company (all were eventually resolved). Yet that strife scarcely prepared her for the chaos of the past few years.

In 2009, Rimes began an affair with actor Eddie Cibrian when they starred in a made-for-TV film, Northern Lights. She divorced her husband, Dean Sheremet, who had been one of her backup dancers; Cibrian’s wife, Brandi Glanville of the reality series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, kicked him out of their house, and in 2011, he and Rimes married.

Glanville wrote a best-selling memoir in which she referred to Rimes as Cibrian’s ‘sugar mama’ and then called Rimes ‘insane’ on national television. TMZ and Us Weekly obsessively covered the singer’s outfits and haircuts. During this period, paparazzi shots of Rimes in a bikini on California’s beaches, looking dangerously thin, were plastered all over the celebrity magazines and gossip websites. Last August, she checked into a clinic seeking treatment for anxiety and stress.

Musical answers

Now, however, Rimes responds to the turmoil with a new album, ‘Spitfire’ (Curb Records), that represents the boldest steps — in both music and lyrics — of her career. The sound of the record is mostly acoustic-based and stripped-down, rootsy and soulful. The up-tempo songs have a rockabilly slap, while the ballads are spare and intimate, the better to feature her still-powerful voice.

It’s the words, though, that will surely draw the most attention: The album, subtitled ‘The Truth ... in No Particular Order’, uses the grand tradition of old-school country music to document the joyous and messy complexities of a relationship. On A Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind, Rimes sings, I threw him out like he was trash one night/The dumbest thing I’ve ever done and I keep me warm with the bridges I burn. On Just a Girl Like You, she offers: He may break my heart, too/But that’s a chance I gotta take/Just like you did.

During an interview last month, Rimes said: “Someone said to me yesterday that this album is like taking a knife and stabbing myself in public. And it’s true — I’m letting everyone watch while I rip my guts out. There was not an ounce of me left to put on this record. It was the most fearless I’ve ever been, in anything that I’ve ever done.

“After people have written my life for me for the last 4 1/2 years — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, it’s what sells the most magazines that week — this was the first time I could dig into my emotions and write from this perspective and not have to apologise for being human. A lot of people don’t see me as that, and haven’t, for a long time.”

It’s unclear, though, how ‘Spitfire’ will be received by country music fans. Having left Nashville for Los Angeles, become fodder for the scandal sheets, and recorded an album that doesn’t sound like the glossy hits on country radio, Rimes is far from a sure thing commercially.

In a recent column on Country Music Television’s website, Chet Flippo wrote that her new album “has an immediacy and a force that I haven’t heard from her in years” but concluded skeptically, “I’ll be curious to see how ‘Spitfire’ does.”

Rimes said that the song Borrowed pointed the way for the rest of ‘Spitfire’. It’s an open, wrenching confession of falling in love with a married man.

I know you’re not mine, only borrowed, ’cause you already belong to her, she sings, But I’m starting to believe it ain’t the whole truth.

Voice from within

“I carried that song around for eight or nine months,” she said. “I was kind of afraid and ashamed of writing it. There were a lot of things in there that I admitted to myself for the first time, and I’d never really written a song like that that was so honest. There was no hiding — no question who or what it was about.”

Darrell Brown, Rimes’ co-producer and songwriting partner, maintains that they were always clear about the intent of this project.

“We looked at the songs as if it were a shooting script for a film,” he said in an email. “We knew the story we wanted to tell — her emotional and spiritual journey of the last few years, and where it led her as a woman.

“LeAnn isn’t one to shy away from anything that’s honest. I believe there’s no turning back for her now. That beautifully brave place she has always sung from is now the place she writes from.”

Rimes said she made an important discovery on her last album, ‘Lady & Gentlemen’, from 2010, on which she tackled songs by great male country artistes. (The album was well-received by critics, but was the lowest-charting release of her career.)

“I was really inspired by the fact that all these men wrote about everything they were living at the time,” she said, “and that made me think, ‘Well, why the hell can’t I do that?’ There seems to be a double standard when it’s a woman going through what I’ve gone through, and writing about it, but I was willing to take that chance. I just took a cue from Waylon and Willie, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard.”

She added that although she started singing about mature issues when she was still a child, only now is she truly growing into the subject matter of classic country songwriting.
“I grew up singing all these adult lyrics that I didn’t quite understand, but then I experienced them and now they come from a completely different place,” she said. It’s a point made in the song I Do Now.

She attributes much of her anger and struggle to having been a child star but said that — especially now that she has Cibrian’s two sons to look after — she’s finally able to put that chapter behind her.

“I’m pretty amazed that I’m still alive, that I haven’t fallen down the child-star path,” she said. “Not until the last couple of years have I decided that I’m going to go figure myself out for a second, because this has been a pretty messed-up way to grow up.”

“As a parent now, I want these kids to be kids as long as they can,” she went on. “I really enjoy my stepsons. I go out on the trampoline and jump around with them, and it’s awesome! They give me an excuse to have a childhood that I never got to have.”

Rimes said that the tabloid coverage that overshadowed her music, rather than being a distraction, became her motivation for the new album.

“I almost want to write all those people letters and say, ‘Thank you so much for writing this record for me’,” she said. “Because every time they had something crazy to say, I had an answer to it as a song.”

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