Girl wonder

She's a country phenomenon. She sings songs of lost love and passion. She's 14 years old and adult America is gaga. Jonathan King in Nashville peers into the strange world of LeAnn Rimes

In Britain, the young may be screaming "LIAM! LIAM!" but in America they are shouting "LEANN! LEANN!"And the girl selling millions of albums is younger than most Oasis fans. A mere 13 years old when her single "Blue" and album of the same name shot to the top of the Billboard Country Chart, LeAnn Rimes has just celebrated her 14th birthday with an unbroken three months at the No1 position.

Youthfulness is not unusual in the world of country music. Tanya Tucker was a 13-year-old when she exploded decades ago, as was Brenda Lee. Still, it's strange to hear someone barely out of nappies crooning about lost love and passion. "Hurt Me", she croons; "I'll Get Even with You"; "Good Lookin' Man" - just some of the titles on her hugely popular first album.

LeAnn has paid her dues, though. Launched into public performance at the age of two as a tap dancer, she was singing professionally by the time she was five, which means almost 10 years of experience under her tiny belt. It's not surprising she sounds so mature. And that is the reason she's selling like crazy. She really is extremely good. Listen to "Blue" and you'll hear a marvellous talent.

The story behind the song is bizarre too. It was written by legendary composer and DJ Bill Mack for Patsy Cline, but she died in a plane crash before she could record it. Mack was heartbroken and the tune stayed on the shelf for 30 years before he heard LeAnn, dusted it off and asked her to interpret it.

Now nominated as Single of the Year, it launched her career in spectacular fashion, enabling the album to cross over from the country chart to peak at No3 on the US pop list (and do considerably better than Oasis, whose Morning Glory album peaked at No4).

Looking nearer 40 than 14 with her styled blonde hair, soft curves and knowing smile, LeAnn brought a jaded audience to its feet at the Country Music Awards in Nashville last week. The youngest star ever nominated for a Country Award, her self-confidence and poise compared favourably with the older and wiser superstars gracing the Grand Old Opry boards, which was handy given that the show gets better prime-time ratings than the Grammys and reaches a wider audience (including the BBC).

In fact, the event dominates the local Tennessee front pages every day for weeks ahead. The Opry complex is amazingly huge and totally tasteless with waterfalls and fountains cascading down hotel walls. Stars with big hair and massive hats flounce about in sequined gowns and embroidered suits. Matronly ladies, vast beer bellies, straggly moustaches and deep South accents predominate.

The contrast is bizarre - what is this child doing in this surreal environment, singing adult lyrics which even her mother disapproves of? Her father, Wilbur, says that not only is LeAnn not dating yet but she won't be for some time if he has any say in the matter. Since, naturally, he is also her manager, it seems likely that LeAnn will stay single for at least a few more months.

The country music world is reactionary in the extreme. Conservative, narrow-minded, evangelistic, the Deep South has been vociferous in condemning rap for its lyrics and stance. And not only right-wing Republicans - Tipper Gore, blonde wife of Democratic Vice President Al, is a leading force in the effort to censor the words and ideas of pop music.

The owner of LeAnn's record label, Mike Curb, was a Republican Lieutenant Governor of California. He made his millions from selling smashes by bands like the Osmonds. And his massive fortune will quite likely propel him towards the Republican Presidential nomination in a few years' time. The story goes that he took a bunch of demo tapes on holiday with him, heard LeAnn for the first time while driving there in his limo, stopped the car, rushed to a payphone and signed her on the spot.

Yet the extraordinary spectacle of small children cavorting like adults disturbs the country community not at all. In her precocious sleeve notes, LeAnn thanks not only her wardrobe, make-up and hairdresser folks but the lady who takes care of her fingernails too. Mind you, of course, God gets the final and ultimate thanks, just as he does from all those wicked rappers and from the devoted Southern evangelists who are so frequently discovered in the company of teenage hookers.

Rimes herself has no friends of her own age and dropped out of school years ago - her education comes at home through the computer and Texas Tech University. She has done most of her learning in the stages and bars of America, sweating under spotlights and making herself heard over the beer swilling and bronco machines of Texas and Tennessee.

LeAnn's sound is traditional, even old-fashioned, owing little to the more youth-oriented, mutated version of country dominating TV screens. But the entire genre is growing in popularity worldwide. There is now a 24-hour country music station in London and CMTV - Country Music Television - is getting more and more viewers in Britain and Europe. So much so that its wealthy owners are investing millions over the next few months in original programming and promotion on this side of the Atlantic.

They believe that the vast army of country fans is enormously underestimated. And they are right. Concerts are doing tremendous business. And there are abundant cross-over sounds of real quality. Brooks and Dunn, this year's "Country Entertainers of the Year", went to No1 in the country chart with a superb track called "My Maria", a fresh interpretation of an obscure Sixties song. All the sound needs to take Europe by storm is a giant pop smash.

LeAnn's Blue has all the qualities of a true commercial seller. It's better than Robson and Jerome, less kitsch than "Macarena", wider-reaching than Britpop. Those who know are saying the battle for the Christmas No1 this year could be between the raddled old Queen of Pop, Madonna, with her Evita rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" - a possible surprise Christmas release, and young 14-year- old upstart Princess of Country, LeAnn Rimes with her sweet and simple "Blue". Place your bets now.

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