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LeAnn Rimes plays her country hits, and a lot more, in strong ACL Fest set

LeAnn Rimes might be the best pure singer in the entire lineup of this year's Austin City Limits Music Festival. A weekend-two-only act, Rimes performed Friday just before sundown on the T-Mobile stage, playing an hourlong set that showcased the power of her voice and the versatility of her repertoire.

Everybody knows "Blue," the 1996 hit that made Rimes a country star when she was just 14 years old. Rimes played the song early in her set — but not before opening with a splendid cover of Stevie Ray Vaughan's blues nugget "Pride and Joy," perhaps to underscore that her appeal as an artist reaches far beyond her initial country base.

LeAnn Rimes performs during the Austin City Limits Music Festival's second weekend in Zilker Park on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.

Backed by a tight three-piece ensemble of guitar, bass and drums, Rimes worked the crowd with the kind of natural ease that comes to someone who's been performing for almost all of her life. Now 39, she's still captivating onstage, skipping and dancing in a flowing white dress as she belts out songs that range from pure pop to country fare to emotional rock & roll.

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Midway through the set, Rimes pared things down to just her voice and Greg Hagan's guitar for a classic Jimmie Rodgers yodeling tune that she said they'd just worked up earlier in the day, after a recent visit to Rodgers' hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. She followed that with Dolly Parton's "Jolene" before Hagan moved to piano for "How Do I Live,"  a 1997 power-ballad that remains her biggest hit to date. Nearly a quarter-century later, she still pushes the song into the stratosphere when she reaches the chorus.

Rimes, who released a live album recorded at New Braunfels' historic Gruene Hall in 2019, said Friday that she expects to have a new record out early next year. Among its songs will be "Throw My Arms Around the World," which came out last year and was a highlight of her ACL Fest set, a dramatic number with an environmentalist theme that she introduced as being about "raising up Mother Earth."

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She followed that by closing the show with an extended version of "Can't Fight the Moonlight," a Diane Warren song Rimes recorded for the soundtrack to the 2000 film "Coyote Ugly." It played up the more rocking side of her music, but ultimately stretched on a little too long, incorporating bass and drum solos in a funky jam during which the sizable crowd began to wander off toward other stages. By then, though, Rimes had already proven why she was a strong addition to the festival's lineup, worthy of a future appearance on both weekends.