In terms of purely the country music scene, LeAnn Rimes is the very definition of a conundrum. On one hand, there's the immensely gifted vocalist, who's famously been in the biz since childhood and won a slate of awards for her work in the country genre. On the other hand, there's the celeb who infamously has battled disproportionately vicious press regarding her personal life; the Rimes who tweets photos of herself in bikinis and wars on social media with reality show starlets.
Of course, through all this roughly 5-year mess, Rimes has managed to release two critically acclaimed--and extremely country--albums: One of them a fine collection of classic country covers, the other her latest, Spitfire, which some are calling the best country album of 2013. Indeed, the latter record features an intriguing mix of Rimes's well-documented personal sagas told in her own words, backed by some of Nashville's most heavyweight songwriters and musicians. When Rimes arrives at the Ram Country studios, her ability to go from chatting in a rapid, totally Southern accent-free dialect instantaneously into her flawless, honeyed singing voice is startling in its contrasting angles.
The girl has become a woman, and one with a story at that, but her talent has remained rock-solid. And therein lies the sad/infuriating punctuation to Rimes's media battles: Her extraordinary gift has been largely overlooked in the shadow of this looming public perception.
Rimes is unflappable when asked if her current life as a Hollywood celebrity has alienated her from the country fan community. "I actually don't [live in Hollywood]," she points out calmly. "I live in Calabasas, where we have horses."
Of course, she also has neighbors such as Justin Bieber in her exclusive 'hood (which is located about 25 miles outside of Hollywood), but Rimes waves this aside. "I do not go into Hollywood. That's such a misconception...I don't want to have to go out to every envelope opening; I mean, I show up when I have to. I'm really at home with my husband and my two stepsons. My husband and I dream of living in Montana in the middle of nowhere, honestly," she adds with a laugh.
Rimes is pragmatic about the response she's been getting from the country fans, who have unquestionably given her a harder time than other artists who have gone through infidelity (For example: Blake Shelton, who was allegedly involved with Miranda Lambert while still hitched, has escaped with a fraction of the criticism Rimes has endured). Although critics have (rightfully) praised Spitfire through the roof, first-week sales of the record were disappointing.
Although she says that the album has "done exactly what I wanted it to do"--namely, give her "a voice in my own life that everyone seemed to be writing for me"--Rimes is, again, matter of fact about the realities of its audience.
"I think it's kind of interesting how country music is about 'real life,' but there are people who don't me to live it," she notes. "Within real life you make mistakes. And you know, you own up to them and move on. And that's the greatest thing--we've all moved on. And it's time for other people to move on. But it seems now to be this story, almost this soap opera, that people are invested in. They love the drama of it. Which is insane to me."
"But it's like it's been 4 and a half, almost 5 years. So, you know, thank God it makes for great music," she deadpans. "When you listen to Spitfire, I'm not trying to change anyone's mind. It's just the truth. I say it's the truth in no particular order, 'cause it is. And I feel like so many people have written such a skewed story...it's also very skewed to paint a picture of myself and my husband that's completely opposite of what we really are. So I think through my music I was able to finally have a voice in my own life. And I think that when you listen to this record you take a piece of me away, 'cause it's that personal."
Rimes's confessional story on the album even includes a surprising piece of her past, in the form of "God Takes Care Of Your Kind"--a song she wrote more than 7 years ago with ex-husband Dean Sheremet (whom she has, remarkably and under-reportedly, managed to maintain a civil relationship with amid all the other drama in her life). She smiles when discussing the song: "It was for the album Family. We recorded it, and it ended up not making it 'cause I didn't love the production on it. And then as we started piecing together this record, I felt like it fit the story really well."
Rimes is abrupt when asked if Sheremet has commented on her album ("No, not really"), but it's clear she is appreciative of having this bit of her past on Spitfire. "It's funny because I have a total different take on it," she explains. "It's almost like, all of my haters out there, it's almost their song to me. So, I look at it in a very odd way. It's a fun song to sing. And yeah, [Dean and I] used to write music together all the time. So he's on there for sure."
That said, with the relentless continued focus on her current marriage, has Rimes ever considered moving into a different musical genre, such as pop? She certainly has the chops to do anything she wants, and the audience may be more forgiving. Rimes is adamant, however, that she will remain in her home genre. She explains that her previous record, Lady & Gentlemen, was a catalyst for the traditionally country sound and confessional style that Spitfire took on.
"I feel like musically, this album probably lends itself to the more traditional country than anything on country radio," she notes. "It was nice to be able to take a breath with Lady & Gentlemen and go back and dig into some of those classic country songs recorded by men. And it was really important, I think, in the whole picture to do that. Because it actually influenced the sound of Spitfire. Everything happens for a reason. I truly believe that going back and falling in love with older-school country music really influenced this record...All of those men, you know, never shied away from writing honest lyrics about what they were living."
She pauses, then laughs. "My life is one big country song."
"I will say this," she adds. "As much as I've been given flack, and it's been hard to navigate my way and come back through my music and to the country audience side--I have a significant amount of fantastic fans that have stuck by me through absolutely everything. And I think one of my biggest my biggest accomplishments is to have been around for 20 years and to still have a career. To still be on my feet, to be making the best music that I've made in my life.
"I was given a gift and I love singing," Rimes muses. "I mean that's the thing: I've never chased fame. That part of it could go away. But I love music. I'm never going to let anyone take that from me. So yeah, it's been overshadowed...but the great thing is, I got to take a really crappy situation and turn it into a great record.
"I hope that the conversation is changing, and I hope it continues to."
This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone: Best Country Album of 2013? LeAnn Rimes Spits Fire About ‘Spitfire’