She's young and pretty, and has a voice that has won her legions of country fans

By David Hochman
Updated December 26, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

It’s a wonder LeAnn Rimes calls herself a country singer. She’s too young to drive a pickup truck or to have seen combat in the Persian Gulf. She can’t legally marry, so she can’t actually get divorced. Heck, in some cases, she’s too young to take a job, let alone shove one.

Never you mind. The 15-year-old gal from Garland, Texas, seems to have country down quite nicely. With nods to Jesus, cattle, and Patsy Cline, she turned last year’s Blue into the best-selling debut album ever by a female country artist. Grammys, a wheelbarrowful of 1997 Academy of Country Music awards, and Billboard‘s Artist of the Year prize followed. In fact, the former Star Search contestant quickly realized she could yodel and twang her way through ”The Star-Spangled Banner” and probably still sell albums.

Make that 2 million albums. This year’s double-platinum record You Light Up My Life, with its God-fearing song list (”Amazing Grace,” ”God Bless America,” and, we weren’t kidding, the national anthem among them), topped Billboard‘s pop and country charts. That album came on the two-steppin’ heels of another multimillion-seller, last spring’s Unchained Melody/The Early Years, which debuted in February as the No. 1 album in America.

And somewhere in between selling 9 million albums, Rimes found time to spin her squeaky-clean image into multimillion-dollar advertising arrangements with KFC and Samsung. She also managed to pen a quasi-autobiographical novel (part of a three-book deal for Doubleday) and star in the TV-movie version, just in time for Christmas.

You may hold to your beliefs that talent and charm alone have catapulted Rimes from the junior-prom circuit to the Grand Ol’ Big Time. After all, her parents, Wilbur and Belinda, have tapes of their only child singing on pitch when she was just 18 months old, tap-dancing at 2, laying down studio tracks full of emotional intensity at 11.

But if you’re looking for a more convincing answer, consider history. The last time anybody saw anything like LeAnn Rimes, her name was Tanya Tucker. It was 1972; Tucker was 13; the song was ”Delta Dawn.” Tucker has said she didn’t even understand the lyrics about a jilted woman wandering the streets wearing a faded flower, but that didn’t matter. The country-crunching boomers dug it anyhow, and the song stayed on the charts for months.

Twenty-five years later, the legions of kids of those very same boomers — the same kids who turned Macaulay Culkin and Nintendo and Barney into national institutions — have now picked Rimes as their favorite country cousin. And that’s likely to keep LeAnn on the country-music fast track. So what if she can’t yet drink booze, wail about her D-I-V-O-R-C-E, or hang out in honky-tonks? She’ll grow into it.