LeAnn Rimes on 'How Do I Live' Milestone, LGBT Support

Singer recalls behind-the-scenes drama of song she recorded for 'Con Air' then lost to another country star

LeAnn Rimes released her version of "How Do I Live" 20 years ago, on May 27th, 1997. Credit: Lester Cohen/Getty Images

In early 1997, LeAnn Rimes was on an impressive winning streak at country radio. Beginning with the stone-country "Blue," which earned her favorable comparisons to Patsy Cline, and including her first Number One single, the breezy "One Way Ticket (Because I Can)," the string of hits led to Rimes' Best New Artist Grammy award in February. She was just 14 years old.

A few months later, while dining at a restaurant in Los Angeles with her parents, Rimes would meet songwriter Diane Warren, whose own streak of hits already included "Solitaire" by Laura Branigan, Cher's "If I Could Turn Back Time," and the Best Original Song Oscar nominees "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now," by Starship and "Because You Loved Me," by Celine Dion. The fateful encounter would ultimately change pop- and country-chart history and the career trajectory of Rimes and another hitmaker: Trisha Yearwood.

Rimes, who was in line to record a song for the big-budget action film Con Air, starring Nicholas Cage, was invited by Warren to the songwriter's studio to record a demo of a song which the film's producer Jerry Bruckheimer had already rejected. "How Do I Live" was a sweeping ballad overflowing with heartache and loss, not exactly the type of song most 14-year-olds could render with the required gravitas. Rimes, however, was certainly the exception.

The drama behind Con Air and "How Do I Live" was not limited to the big screen, however, as it would soon become clear. When executives changed their minds about including Rimes' version of the song in the film, they approached Yearwood, who by that time already had five LPs and four Number One country hits, including her debut single, "She's in Love With the Boy" to her credit. Released on May 27th, 1997, Yearwood's single began garnering country airplay, eventually climbing to Number Two on the charts. To say Rimes was devastated is an understatement, especially since she had already filmed a music video for the song. Her then-label, Curb Records, released Rimes' version of the song that same day, but it failed to crack country's Top Forty.

"I had my share of disappointments up to that point but not on that level," Rimes tells Rolling Stone Country. "This was first big introduction into the music business. Being a kid, kid gets used against you and it also gets thrown out the window. So, you're treated like a kid. But if somebody can play that card with you they will. It was an interesting place to be. To be in the middle of that with the songwriter, Diane Warren, and Jerry Bruckheimer, and all of these producers, I think my head was spinning."

Once again, however, fate intervened as Rimes happened to run into the head of her record label, Mike Curb, in an airport. When he suggested taking her version to pop radio, she agreed, although she also understood the risk of alienating her country fan base. What she couldn't have anticipated was the perceived Rimes-Yearwood "feud" that would be set off by that move. One week after Yearwood's version debuted on the country chart, Rimes began climbing the pop survey. While both songs would settle in at the Number Two spot on their respective charts, Rimes' version was far more long-lived, hanging in for a record 69 weeks on the Hot 100, a tally eventually surpassed 11 years later by Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours." Rimes' single, which also spent 32 weeks in the Top Ten, a feat duplicated by the Chainsmokers' "Closer" earlier this year, has sold more than three million copies to date and is the fourth biggest hit of all time on the Billboard Hot 100. 

Yearwood's take on the song, which itself sold more than two million copies, also landed in the Top Thirty on the pop charts, and in early 1998 earned a Grammy nomination for Best Country Female Vocal Performance. But the Hollywood-inspired twists to this dramatic tale were far from over. In a Grammy first, Rimes also received a nod in the same category. Rimes performed the song during the telecast and Yearwood walked away with the hardware. Warren, meanwhile, was nominated for – and lost – the Academy Award to "My Heart Will Go On," from Titanic.

"She really touched all the codependency of our society with that song," Rimes says of Warren, with whom the singer teamed again for "Can't Fight the Moonlight" from the 2000 film Coyote Ugly. "It's played at weddings, they play it at funerals. You never know, there's just a magic about certain songs. I think it's like the perfect storm of the time we're living in and what people need in their life, the artist and how they're singing it. I loved the song and thought my version would never be heard. It was an awakening into what kind of business it could be. But that's also a major lesson in that what you think is something that's just going to end your career and never be heard is a twist of fate and a blessing in disguise."

Rimes' latest album Remnants is out now and includes her version of Brandi Carlile's "The Story" as well as the current single "Love Is Love Is Love," which she notes was inspired in part by her support of the LGBT community and of equality in general – a subject about which she remains passionate.

"It was also a major conversation, a deeper conversation in our writing session of 'how far can your love extend?' she explains. "Can we disagree with someone? Can someone have done the most horrible thing and can we still find that oneness within us to be able to extend some kind of love? It's a very deep message in that happy song. But it's amazing to be able to create and talk about things like that. I think it's much-needed right now. I can't hide my heart. That's written all over it for me, equality and loving people. How people take that? That's about them; that's not about me. I spread love."