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`BLUE’ ALBUM PROVES YOUNG SINGER IS RED-HOT

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LEANN RIMES; "Blue" (MCG-Curb). * * *

Perhaps wary of her youth and overnight success, the Country Music Association, in its collective wisdom, decided not to make 14-year-old LeAnn Rimes its Horizon Award-winning "newcomer of the year." Nor did the CMA recognize her ear-catching debut single, "Blue." And who knows; the country music veterans may be right. Will she last?

Fans, though, have been voting with their wallets, making Rimes a sensation and the album "Blue" a crossover success. Firmly planted atop Billboard's country charts, it also spent several weeks in the overall pop album Top 10.

The initial single justified the talk about the teen, a Mississippi native raised in Texas. As everyone and their dog has noted, "Blue" recalls Patsy Cline (for whom the song was reportedly written, but who never recorded it) - yet Rimes makes it her own by way of her rootsy yodel and clarion voice.

And while the spirit of Cline hovers over the opener, the rest of the album is as broad as contemporary country radio, with Rimes also at least hinting at the styles of Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and others. There's lots of steel-guitar twang and the usual country topics - which can raise eyebrows when one escapes the thrall of Rimes' creamy voice and remembers her years. This is particularly true when considering the adult subject matter of "My Baby" and "Good Lookin' Man."

Rimes serves up a showy remake of Eddy Arnold's signature "Cattle Call," and the song takes on an even mightier nostalgic tint when Arnold himself joins in - only to take over. A more balanced duet would have been better. The 11-song collection winds up with a bookend to her big hit, even echoing the title, with "Fade to Blue."

RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.