Four hours into the photo shoot, LeAnn Rimes breaks into song.

Well, not so much song. She breaks into notes, as far as I can tell. They aren’t really words. More like guitar notes or jazz riffs. Still, the power of her voice—that voice, the voice that hit No. 1 at age 13 and drew comparisons to the greatest songbirds ever—freezes the room. Effortlessly, it reminds us that her appeal and magnetism are tied to the goose-bumps-inducing sound she can produce, and the pipes never change.

Everything else about LeAnn Rimes, the country sweetheart from Garland who burst onto the national scene more than a decade ago, has changed. Suddenly mature and calmly professional at 24, she’s no longer a “little girl with a big voice,” as she once described herself. Little LeAnn is long gone, along with angst-ridden teen years, poorly received crossover albums, and buckets of family drama. These things have been replaced with a woman in full: confident, sexy, in love. Were she to be eyed by Swingers’ “Double Down” Trent, she would be deemed “all growed up.”

“Sometimes I feel a lot older than I am,” Rimes says, as a hairstylist toils over her on a sunny Sunday afternoon at Milk Studios in New York City. She arrived on time for our D Magazine photo shoot, husband Dean Sheremet in tow, with little fuss and fanfare for a girl who has sold 37 million albums. From the start she was all business. “I like this, this, and this,” she said matter-of-factly when the stylists brought her clothes from which to choose. Decision made—poof—she was gone, off to chat with the hairstylist and nibble on organic grilled chicken.

She’s already in full promotion mode. The night before, she started her whirlwind PR tour for her new album, Family (in stores in October). Still, I thought I’d have time to break through that showbiz exterior. I hoped to get an hour out of the studio with her, a girly lunch, a coffee, a bonding moment over a drink. Instead, I’m granted a time slot during makeup and manicure, not exactly the time for shocking confessionals.

Still, we can become best buds in a studio a thousand-plus miles from home, right?

“Are you feeling as great as you look?” I ask. (Soft opener, intended to win her over with compliments.)

“Oh yes, I feel amazing,” she says.

Hey, we’re connecting!

Then I’m shuffled out of my seat so the nail technician can get to work. That’s how I learned the LeAnn Rimes Interview Dance: sitting, standing, bobbing, and weaving around a makeup artist and nail technician. I finally resort to planting myself next to her chair like a big reporting oak, my arm out like an investigative branch, dangling the tape recorder in her face.

Hair: Tim Rogers; Makeup: Troy Surratt; Nails: Elle; Dress: Versace, available at Barneys NY; Shoes: Christian Louboutin, available at Barneys NY; Necklace: Gregory’s; stylist: Kristin Hull
Maybe we can bond over bikinis. Her recent Shape magazine cover showed an amazingly toned Rimes wearing nothing more than an American flag bikini and a smile.

“You look so great on the cover of Shape,” I say. “That must have been totally nerve-wracking to shoot in front of all those people, right?” (Me: nodding, smiling.)

She: “No, not at all. I loved it. I’ve been working up to it. I’m totally ready to be in a bikini.”

I learn two lessons: Rimes-Eveans girl talk is not on the agenda. And a lack of confidence is not a problem for one of us.

So for the next hour, LeAnn Rimes and I have a very professional conversation. Keep in mind: she’s been singing since she was 18 months old, performing since age 5, and she was signed to Curb Records at 12. She burst onto the scene with “Blue” (a song written for Patsy Cline) in 1996. After a decade in the industry, she doesn’t suffer fools (read: tape recorder-wielding assistant editors) gladly. She has won two Grammy awards, countless industry accolades, and sold more than the aforementioned 37 million albums (for comparison, country superstar Alan Jackson has sold just over 40 million albums). Her song “How Do I Live” was the first ever multi-platinum country single and spent more than 200 weeks on the charts. She has appeared in a TV movie and in 2000’s Coyote Ugly, and she hosted one season of CMT’s Nashville Star.

But not that long ago, it seemed her storybook life was unraveling. In 2000, she sued her father and his business partner, claiming they misappropriated about $7 million of her earnings. She also sued her record company (Curb, the company she’s currently with) for millions of dollars, claiming the contract she signed at age 12 was unfair. At 16, Rimes moved to Los Angeles, against the wishes of her father, and shacked up with young actor Andrew Keegan. She and her dad were estranged for several years, and during this time, she reportedly told him she hated him in public after a verdict against the record company didn’t go her way—something her dad had nothing to do with.

Today, it’s hard to believe she was ever so rebellious. “It was such a hiccup in an incredible career that I’ve had, and that I continue to have,” she says. Her parents’ divorce also had a sobering effect on her. She says she and her father have made amends (he gave her away at her wedding), and he lives nearby in Nashville. “He’s adorable,” she says. “All I ever wanted was for him to be my father.” There’s a reason she named her new album Family.

“It’s great to be at this place, at 24, to have had this success and this experience and this whole other life behind me,” she says. “But artistically and emotionally, I’ve really come into my own on this record.”

With the tabloid drama behind her, she seems to have settled into a (relatively) normal life, for which she credits the move to Nashville from Los Angeles. Although she reads the weekly tabs as a guilty pleasure (a habit that’s “so bad,” she says), she has managed to keep herself out of them for the most part.

Not that they wouldn’t take an interest in what we see at the photo shoot. At one point, Rimes lies on her back on a bench, knees bent, her brown Versace dress sliding alarming high up her thighs.

“I could make $50,000 from Us Weekly right now!” her husband says.

“Do it!” she yells back, giggling. “Do it and buy me a ring!”

Rimes has been married five years. Dean Sheremet was a professional dancer when the two met. She broke up with Keegan the night she met her future husband, but due to previously scheduled plans, her ex accompanied her anyway to the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo. “All of my friends and management were on the plane with me, and they’re all joking, saying, ‘You need some Vitamin D!’ and he’s like, ‘What are they talking about?’” she says.

Three weeks after their first date, the couple was engaged. They married in February 2002, at Perkins Chapel on SMU’s campus. The bride wore Vera Wang, and the reception was at the Four Seasons in Los Colinas. Rimes and Sheremet have only spent two nights apart since they met, and when you see them together, the energy is palpable, if not a bit over-the-top. While she has hair and makeup done, Sheremet taps on a Mac laptop that features a picture of his wife as wallpaper. He snaps photos of her getting her photo taken. And during breaks, he steps in to give her a quick hug and whisper sweet words. “Booty, booty, booty, booty!” he says at one point, grabbing her bottom.

One of the first things Rimes told me was: “I’m married to a man with an incredible body.” So there’s that.

Rimes talks long and heartfelt about the “organic sound” on her new album. She names singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, indie rocker Ray LaMontagne, and Chris Cornell from Audioslave as artists with whom she’d love to sing a duet. (She sings with Bon Jovi on their new song “Till We Ain’t Strangers Anymore,” which will appear on both their new albums.) She’s into fashion these days, and she names Zac Posen, Stella McCartney, and Lanvin as a few of her favorites. “A lot has changed since jeans and boots,” she says.

The photo shoot proves it. She nails every pouty, sexy, and wholesome look like a veteran model. Then, just like that, we’re done. No hug goodbye. No exchange of digits. Though I do catch a hint that we can try again someday to be best pals. Rimes says she may one day get a ranch outside of town.

“I love Dallas,” she says. “It feels like home to me.”

LeAnn’s  Dallas Favorites

Hotel: The Four Seasons

Restaurants: Nobu at Hotel Crescent Court and Organicity (on McKinney Avenue). “It is the most quaint Greek restaurant I have ever been to. The food is healthy, fresh, and tasty. One of my favorite restaurants in the world!”

Day trip: The Dallas Aquarium

Shopping: NorthPark Center, especially Eiseman Jewels, Intermix, and Bottega Veneta. And Forty Five Ten.

Dallas memory: “My wedding day. It was 65 degrees in the middle of February, the most perfect day. It was wonderful to get married in a place that was so familiar and comfortable to me.”

Big fan of: The Dallas Cowboys