September 02, 1996 12:00 PM

When 6-YEAR-OLD LEANN Rimes showed up in 1988 to sing at a talent show in her hometown of Flowood, Miss. (pop. 2,860), her parents were dismayed to learn she would be up against children twice her age. Wilbur, her father, thought “she did okay” belting out “Getting to Know You” (from The King and I), but, eyeing the competition, left LeAnn and her mother, Belinda, to wait out the judging and the other performances while he went off to hunt raccoons. Wilbur had just come home when four-foot LeAnn wrestled the six-foot, first-place trophy through the front door. “He just started crying,” says Belinda.

Wilbur hasn’t cried since. And, he says, “I haven’t been hunting, and I’ve never underestimated her again.” The victory also marked a turning point for LeAnn, who, Belinda remembers, announced, “I’m going to be a singer. I’m going to be a big star one day.” Prophetic words. Just 14, Rimes is already inviting comparisons to legends.

Her first major-label single, “Blue,” sold over 100,000 copies in the first week of its June release. Blue, the followup album in July, raced to the top of country-music charts, climbed as high as No. 3 on pop charts and spun off a second hit, “Hurt Me.” Says one of Rimes’s idols, Wynonna Judd: “You don’t hear voices like that anymore, voices that catch your ear in a few seconds.” Deejay Bill Mack, 65, agrees. He was so blown away by Rimes’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a Texas Rangers game that he sent the 11-year-old a never-recorded song he’d written for Patsy Cline in 1963, the year she died in a plane crash. Until Rimes, he says, Cline “was the only one I could hear sing it.” The song, of course, was “Blue.”

“I fell in love with it,” says Rimes, whose musical taste runs from Whitney Houston to Hank Williams Sr., and who wants “my generation to learn where the roots of country are.” Cline, she notes, is “my favorite traditional woman country singer.” Tanya Tucker approves. “It’s great to hear a Patsy Cline influence on the radio,” she says. Adds mother Belinda: “People say this child has an old soul.”

Belinda and Wilbur, both 44, were high school sweethearts. She worked as a receptionist and he sold equipment for an oil company while they tried to start a family. After 12 years without success, Belinda turned to prayer and, she says, “within six weeks, I was pregnant with LeAnn.”

Her daughter’s musical gifts flowered almost as quickly. Belinda, who often sang to her daughter, was pleased when the 18-month-old joined her in singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Not long after, when Rimes’s father tried to yodel “All Around the Water Tank,” she showed him how to do it. Listening now to early tapes Wilbur recorded, Rimes says, “It’s kind of cute—I could sing better than I could talk.”

She filled her preschool years with T-ball, gymnastics and tap dance. Two months after her talent-show triumph, her father’s job took the family to Dallas, where the little girl was soon yodeling “Cowboy’s Sweetheart” from a float in a local pageant. In 1985, Rimes became a regular on the Johnnie High Country Musical Review, a local stage show in Arlington, Texas, where her torch songs packed grownup power. “Dad would explain that it was a sad song, and I would sing it that way,” she says simply. “I don’t think I have to experience anything to sing it.”

What she did experience, on TV’s Star Search in 1990, when she was 8, were consecutive victories with her heartrending version of Marty Robbins’s “Don’t Worry About Me.” Within a year, she’d written a song herself, “Share My Love,” which she recorded on a regional label in 1994. The record attracted the attention of Mike Curb, head of MCG/Curb Records, who signed her to a contract.

Not bad for a kid who still gets a kick out of going to the movies with pals, riding horses and shopping for CDs. (Okay, she does like being recognized at Burger King.) “Now is a scary time,” her mother frets. “She’s entering her teenage years, and [the life she’s leading] is not normal. I worry about what lies ahead.” But with two Country Music Awards nominations behind her, and bookings to warm up for the likes of Barbara Mandrell, Randy Travis, Wynonna Judd and Tracy Lawrence, Rimes reasons differently. “I’m not an overnight success,” she says. “I’ve been at this since I was 6.”


BOB STEWART in Fort Worth

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