LeAnn Rimes was a free-spirited 13-year-old when, on one of her biggest songs, she threw caution to the wind and bought a one-way ticket on a westbound train. You know, “to see how far I can go.” Pretty far, it turned out. That ticket took her everywhere: to the Grammys, to No. 1 and to the gay clubs.
Drama threw her career off track, however, and lately she’s made tabloid headlines for everything but music: she’s too fat, she’s too skinny; she’s a home-wrecker; she’s an unfit stepmother. But now Rimes, 29, is heading in a new direction, pumping estrogen into songs by the kings of country on her 13th album, “Lady & Gentlemen.” The singer will perform songs from the new CD, along with hits, at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino.
Rimes spoke candidly about one of her “second dads” co-producing her latest work, how a gay uncle inspired her to speak out on LGBT issues, the lack of a successful out country star and what to make of those rumors of her ex-hubby being homosexual.
You do some gender bending on this album, LeAnn.
Gender bending – I like the way you put that.
Is this the closest you’ve come to doing drag?
I would guess so! I’ve always watched others do my songs, but I’ve never taken it in the opposite direction. I didn’t dress up in the studio! (Laughs)
But it was fun doing this record because there’s a certain softness and a different vibe that a woman brings to these songs in a lot of ways, especially songs like “Good Hearted Woman.” When you’re singing it from the first person, from someone who’s actually experienced it as a woman, they take on a whole different connotation.
You’ve been a big supporter of gay issues for a very long time, having done an It Gets Better video and recently a photo shoot for the NOH8 Campaign. Why are these LGBT issues so important to you, and why is it important to be part of these projects?
I believe in equality. Everybody should be treated exactly the same way no matter what their race, no matter what their sexuality. I’ve learned from everything I’ve gone through and from being in this business for so long and being judged since I was 13. That was my biggest lesson in life: not to judge others. You’ve never walked in their shoes, you don’t know where they’re coming from, and you don’t know their story.
I just believe that everybody should be able to do what they want to do as long as no one’s hurting anybody. I don’t believe in hate. I don’t believe in bullying. It’s something that’s become a huge issue, especially with cyberbullying. It just breaks my heart seeing kids committing suicide because they’re not accepted. It kills me.
You were visibly shaken when you performed “The Rose” with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles last Christmas. How have the suicides affected you specifically?
I have not known anyone personally that has committed suicide because of their sexuality. But the stories from fans always make me appreciate and love what I do even more and drive me at the end of the day, because I feel like to touch someone through my music is the ultimate thing for me, especially if I’ve written it. I’ve had many people say, “I was thinking about committing suicide and your song came on the radio and I just decided not to do it, that life was worth living.” It’s unfathomable to, I guess, really understand the impact I’ve had on some people’s lives. It does affect me. It deeply, deeply affects me. Obviously you can tell by that performance.
You mentioned having felt judged since you were 13. Is that why you gravitate toward gay people, because we’re some of the least judgmental of people?
Oh, you guys can be very judgmental! I’m just kidding. (Laughs)
When it comes to fashion maybe.
Exactly! You’re like, “Girl, why you wearing that?” No, I don’t know. I have a lot of gay friends and it’s something that has just naturally happened in my life and in this business. I have a lot of straight friends too, but my closest, deepest friends are gay and a lot older than me. Darrell Brown, he actually co-produced the record, and his partner are like second dads to me; they are with me through thick and thin. All my friends that I have known in my life are solid, but there’s something about my gay friends; they’ve always stuck by me and never judged, ever.
You also had a gay uncle. How did he affect you?
Yeah, I did. He actually passed away from AIDS when I was 11; it was very hush-hush and no one went to his funeral in our family except for my dad. He was someone really, really close to me. So I think it goes way back, I guess. He loved me and I loved him, and it was a very early-on experience that made me want to get involved even more.
As someone who’s been part of the country community for so long, do you feel it’s broken the stigma of not being welcoming to gay people?
I hope it’s progressed. Country music has become so mainstream and I think all of us have a lot of gay fans, so I hope that no one’s discriminating from somebody coming to a concert or anything. But I do think it has, in the past, had that unfortunate stigma. I think the walls are breaking down, at least I hope so. But I hope the walls are breaking down all over, not just in country music.
So you don’t think the genre is as homophobic as some people perceive it to be?
I don’t think so, I really don’t. I can’t speak for everybody obviously, but I don’t think that it is as homophobic as you said.
Then why isn’t there an out gay country star who’s mainstream and successful?
I don’t know. That’s a really good question. And that’s kind of unfortunate. I have thought about it. Shelby Lynne is an amazing singer and Chely Wright is such a sweetheart. I’m so happy for (Chely) and her wife. But I don’t know. You pose a very good question that I haven’t thought about in a very long time.
There were obviously many upsides to finding fame early on, but what about the drawbacks – what sucked about being a 13-year-old star?
(Laughs) What sucked about it – I love how you put it. I lost a lot of my childhood, obviously. I used to say, “Oh no, I didn’t lose anything,” but I think as you get older – and now having my two “bonus boys,” as I call them, and seeing how they are as children and how innocent they are – a lot of innocence was taken away early on because I had to be responsible for so many at such a young age. So I think that’s the hardest part. But the great part is getting to do it now, with them. Where I’ve come, the place that I’ve come to know, I couldn’t have skipped any of it. I started at a young age, I love music, I was so driven as a kid – this is my path. I’m a true believer in what’s supposed to happen will. And this is my path. I can’t change it, and I wouldn’t. I’m enjoying having fun with Eddie (Cibrian’s) kids for sure – and being a kid when I can.
There have been many headlines regarding you lately, but the latest is that you’re an overbearing stepmother according to Eddie’s ex-wife, Brandi Glanville. What are you really like as a mom?
I guess if loving them with all my heart and taking care of them when they’re with us and being there for them is overbearing, then I guess I am – but I don’t think that’s the definition of overbearing.
I grew up in a family where my parents divorced when I was 14. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I know my mom and dad weren’t meant to be together other than to have me (laughs), and I’m totally cool with it. The kids are our main priority, and we have a house full of love and I have a great relationship with them.
What do you make of the outing of your ex on a Detroit radio station a couple of years ago when a so-called extended family member, “Pebbles,” came on the air to say he’s gay?
I was actually with him at the time. I think it was a bunch of craziness. I support Dean (Sheremet) and his happiness, and he’s married now (to Sarah Silver) and I’m very happy for him. That was a big, big prank at the end of the day.
Have you ever fallen for a gay man?
Have I ever fallen for a gay man? I don’t think so! I think it’s always been a straight man, but I love my gay friends to death, that’s for sure.
8 p.m. Nov. 16
Sound Board at MotorCity Casino