If there was ever a time for a new generation to be introduced to the standards of country music, it’s now. LeAnn Rimes’ impressive set, Lady and Gentlemen, takes a raw — and at times tearfully heartbreaking with gin-soaked moments — walk down memory lane. If schooling was what you needed, well, you just discovered all the reasons why country, the most American of all musical genres, has stood the test of time.
As soon as the playful and vocally expressive opening track “Swingin’” takes off, Rimes cracks open a vessel of pure musical gold. Sometimes, her personal life drastically overshadows her talent. In this classic feel good fiddle and guitar session, Rimes, whose phrasing inspires, took what made this John Anderson ditty so great, turned up the volume and blew out the back speakers of your daddy’s old Ford.
Imagination and clever twists pepper an album that could have easily come off as a cheap knockoff. That isn’t the case here, especially with “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” Somehow, Rimes delivers an even more touching performance than Freddy Fender ever did. Not to discredit Fender’s work, but Rimes pulls the reins in and creates a delightful rendition, and her Spanish isn’t half bad.
Now, while no female in country music can compare to Linda Ronstadt — who covered Waylon Jennings “The Only Daddy to Walk the Line” with a few creative changes to the lyrics — Rimes takes cues from both of them in how to breathe fire into “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line.” Sure, Rimes may not reach legendary status, but what she does do here is prove that she can emote, rearrange and vocally impress similar to the greats.
Going even further on a Merle Haggard ballad, Rimes sinks her teeth into some pretty dark material. With “I Can’t Be Myself,” Rimes is right at home with telling a gut-wrenching story of a psychologically abusive relationship. Torn between love and the right thing, every vocal nuance drips with sincerity as if Rimes had written the song herself. There are few artists that have this ability, and unlike singing, deep connection to material can not be taught.
Then, among an already heavy album, drops “Sixteen Tons,” a coal mining tale originally performed by Merle Travis and later by Tennessee Ernie Ford, who hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with this track. Ford’s version was a crisp jazz-infused number, at least in live performance, and Rimes lifted that energy into her own soulful take on the track. Before now, she rarely exercised her jazz chops, but this song demonstrates that she may need to broaden her musical style. By melting the lyrics, she has crafted a new nostalgic breed of generation. She sings about a generation that fantastically dreams of jazz clubs and cigar rooms and struggles to climb out of the governmental hands of their oppressors.
Sinking even further into a rich country history, Rimes next takes on Kris Kristofferson’s sexually suggestive 1970 classic “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” While Kristofferson was the song’s penman and original performer, the most popular and commercially successful version came from Sammi Smith. Rimes, much like Smith, plunges into the story and makes the song about longing for a soul mate, instead of sexual gratification. She pulls you upright, slaps you across the face and entices you to listen.
“Rose Colored Glasses,” a delusional spin on love, first hit the charts in 1978 and became the first of 32 Billboard hit singles for John Conlee. While Conlee’s performance was a flowing, heartfelt testament, Rimes accelerates it, which seems to drain all meaning from the lyrics. Instead of the images of red colored glasses lingering with the listener, the metaphorical significance is thrown away. Words and phrases spill from Rimes’ lips and charge rapidly into the verses. This could have been a highlight of the album, but instead, a clunky, misshapen delivery falls into our laps.
“A Good Hearted Woman,” a track written by Jennings and Willie Nelson, is the title track from Jennings’ 1972 album and spent 18 weeks on the Billboard charts. With Rimes’ perspective, the good natured fun of the song doesn’t quite land, despite a superb vocal. It’s either the tempo change or a female perspective that doesn’t work on this narrative. Rimes took a risk, as she did the entire album, but it didn’t pay off on this particular effort.
All is forgotten, fortunately, as she redeems herself on the next two tracks, “When I Call Your Name” and “He Stopped Loving her Today,” which are considered some of the greatest country songs ever written and performed. In light of her recent personal troubles, it is intriguing to hear her pain and suffering seep through the stories. “Name,” a story about a broken relationship, is a Vince Gill tune cowritten with Tim DuBois and released in 1990. Rimes, at the urging of her producer and mentor Gill, took a different approach to the song by injecting a gospel meets R&B inflection to the vocal arrangement, which sets it apart from the original without straying too far from the formula. “Loving” similarly benefits from an updated perspective; instead of being from the perspective of the man, Rimes is able to explore the vulnerability and heartache that this song chronicles.
Taking a step into more recent memory, Rimes takes on one of her own. “Blue,” the 1996 song that made her famous (and which was originally intended for Patsy Cline), gets a much-needed makeover. Even in the original recording, there was a remarkable maturity to her voice and phrasing. The unfortunate part was that there is very little that a 14-year-old ingenue knows about a broken heart. Now, with more than ten years of experience under her belt, Rimes is able to shape a more sincere story, which makes her own song seem timeless and truly a track intended for Cline. Despite having released nine albums since then, “Blue” will forever be Rimes’ signature.
As with all ballads on this set, “The Bottle Let Me Down” is another magical moment for Rimes. It’s as if her entire career led up to this. “Bottle,” another Haggard original which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard charts in 1966, takes on a new life. With a subdued arrangement, Rimes is able to showcase the intricate fibers and textures of her voice, unlike any of her other performances on the album. As a nice little surprise, even “Bottle” has impressed Haggard, who jhas showered praise on the blonde crooner in recent interviews.
The last two tracks–”Crazy Women,” a deliciously ironic twist to a male-laden set, and “Give,” an inspirational prayer for change–find themselves being the perfect ending to an almost perfect album. “Women,” a mixture of a kiss-off, boy-bashing pledge and a female empowerment anthem, gives the answer to the age old question: Why are women so crazy? Rimes’ answer: “crazy women are made by crazy men.” Men, you can now sleep with eyes wide open; it all points back to you.
With a 2011 that has been plagued by natural disasters and a surge in teen suicide, “Give” is incredibly poignant and strikes a nerve with a world searching for answers. “If you want a friend, then be one,” Rimes begs. The song, written by Craig Wiseman and Tony Mullins, is a plea of acceptance and forgiveness; as Rimes says, “If you want it, give.”
Must Listens: “When I Call Your Name,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “The Bottle Let Me Down”
Rating **** out of 5