For The Record: How 'Blue' Made LeAnn Rimes A Global Pop Star
The biggest thing in country music in the spring of 1996 wasn't very "country" at all. Aside from a token fiddle flair here and a steel guitar slide there, the genre's most successful artists, including then-newcomers Shania Twain and Faith Hill, were essentially singing countrified pop songs.
Still, this wasn't the first time Nashville went all-in on pop: Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton both successfully crossed over from country to pop, and their 1983 soft rock duet "Islands in the Stream," which hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, is an enduring example of crossover potential. But after Garth Brooks set the template for massive crossover success with No Fences, his smash 1990 album that supplemented his Okie twang with rock and pop arrangements, Nashville retooled its machine to pump out singers who could appeal to mainstream audiences.
All of which makes the summer 1996 breakout success of "Blue," a throwback to 1950s country and western sung by a then-13-year-old LeAnn Rimes, either a calculated move to stand out from the pack or a complete fluke. Twenty-five years later, history has proven neither perspective entirely true nor false.
A Texan, by way of Mississippi, with a commanding voice, Rimes began performing at talent shows and in musical theater productions in Dallas at age 6 in the late '80s. She got her first taste of the big time in 1990 when she competed on the pre-"American Idol" national talent showcase, "Star Search," a move that elevated her profile on the Texas country music circuit. While Rimes caught the ears of many influential locals, Bill Mack, a Dallas radio disc jockey known as the "Midnight Cowboy" on WBAP-AM, heard something extra special in her voice.
Mack, a songwriter himself, still believed in an ill-fated song called "Blue," which he wrote way back in 1958. He recorded a version of the song that year in Wichita Falls, Texas, for the Starday label; Billboard described it as "a slow-tempo, relaxed item, with Mack's vocal backed by instrumentation featuring a honky tonk type piano" and called it "a flavorsome side."
"Blue" earned local radio airplay, but it failed to find a wider audience. In an effort to amplify the song's reach, Mack hired a female singer to record a new version he could shop around. Then he hit on the notion that Patsy Cline might be the right singer for it and arranged to meet her backstage in San Antonio to pitch the song. He grabbed Roger Miller's guitar and played the song for her, Mack recalls in a GRAMMY Foundation Living History interview. "She said, 'Send that thing to me, I like it.'" Before she could record it, though, Cline died in a plane crash in 1963.
A few other singers took their shots with "Blue" over the years, but Mack knew he had a winner in Rimes. She subsequently recorded a version of the song at age 11 in 1993 for her 1994 independent release All That, which sold 15,000 copies locally and brought interest from Nashville's Curb Records. The label signed Rimes and released "Blue" as her first national single in May 1996, a little more than a month ahead of her album of the same name in July.
"Blue" was a breakout success, driven by Rimes' ability "to convey pain without betraying her tender age or inexperience," as critic Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post as the song was gaining popularity in August 1996.
Although "Blue" could have fallen into the novelty music trap, where songs that recall earlier musical styles often go, the song's classic country vibe wasn't a put-on; it was genuinely of the era, a forgotten tune rendered timeless by Rimes' soaring performance. But even Rimes herself, at 13, wasn't sure "Blue" was the right song to release from her 11-track debut album.
"I was very skeptical when 'Blue' was released as a single because it was very traditional, and I knew radio was gonna be hesitant to play it," Rimes told Texas Monthly in 1996. "They call it retro, but it's true country music and it's totally different from contemporary country, which has the pop feel."
In a way, Rimes' instincts were correct: "Blue" peaked at No. 10 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, a remarkable feat but not exactly a smash hit. That honor went to the follow-up single, the more contemporary "One Way Ticket (Because I Can)," which remains her only No. 1 hit on that chart. Still, "Blue" did kick open the doors for Rimes, who would chart five total singles from Blue, including the Top 10 hit "The Light in Your Eyes" and "Hurt Me," a ballad that marries classic and contemporary touches. (Blue ultimately peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart in August 1996.)
Blue, both the six-times platinum album and its breakthrough title track, marked Rimes' official arrival to the global pop stage. At the 39th GRAMMY Awards, held in 1997, Rimes, then 14, became the youngest person to win a GRAMMY, a title she still holds today; that night, she won two GRAMMYs: Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance for "Blue," the song that started it all.
Rimes then swept the 1997 Academy of Country Music Awards, winning Top New Female Vocalist, Song of the Year and Single Record of the Year. She also became the youngest person to ever be nominated and win the Country Music Association Awards' Horizon Award, the best New Artist equivalent.
Curb capitalized on their new star: As songs from Blue still worked their way up the charts, the label issued the compilation Unchained Melody: The Early Years, in February 1997, which comprised her pre-fame independent recordings; the album topped the Billboard 200 chart the following month. Her cover of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" hit No. 3 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in March 1997, while the Blue standout, "The Light in Your Eyes," peaked at No. 5 three months later.
In the wake of Blue, Rimes cashed in on her country music credibility for crossover success on the level of Twain and Hill, who both landed mega pop hits in 1998—Twain's "You're Still the One" and Hill's "This Kiss" were both Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart—after flirting with the mainstream chart the previous year.
Rimes' big crossover came with the Diane-Warren-penned single "How Do I Live," a straightforward pop ballad that peaked at No. 2 during its 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, at the time the longest run in the chart's history, and placed at No. 1 on the Top 20 Billboard Hot 100 Hits of the 1990s.
To date, Rimes has sold more than 37 million records worldwide, with many of her albums and songs charting higher and crossing over more definitively into pop music. Still, "Blue" remains her signature song. And Rimes proved she still has the pipes to deliver the goods: On a 2011 rerecording of the song for the album of standards, Lady & Gentlemen, she croons with the depth of a thousand broken hearts.