A Breath of Fresh Air

updated 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

NO YANKEE SHOULD DARE ATTEMPT this. But down-home Georgia girl Trisha Yearwood, southbound from a concert in Atlanta to her folks' place in charming, rural Monticello, has decided on this brilliant autumn morning to give free reign to the horses in her rented Trans Am. "I'm gonna go 70 the whole way," says the singer as piny woods and pecan groves blur by. "If I get a ticket, I don't care. Besides, the Georgia State Patrol loves me."

And so, it seems, does everyone in her hometown of 2,000, where signs read WELCOME TO MONTICELLO—HOME OF TRISHA YEARWOOD. Less than two years ago, though, Yearwood, now 28, was best known around here as the younger daughter of banker Jack Yearwood and his wife, Gwen, a schoolteacher, and as the Outstanding Senior Girl at Piedmont Academy, class of '82.

But Yearwood's fame began to spread faster than Georgia kudzu last year when her first-ever single, "She's in Love with the Boy," hit No. 1 on the country charts. Soon afterward, her debut album, Trisha Yearwood, went platinum. After touring last year with the biggest hat in Nashville, Garth Brooks, Yearwood kicked back and recorded her second album, Hearts in Armor, which has sold more than 500,000 copies since its September release.

Now, pulling off the highway on the way into Monticello, Yearwood slows the car and speeds up the monologue. "Oh, you're gonna love my hometown," she says. "I'm getting excited. Look over there, don't you love that church?" Driving past the town's only motel—guests must register at the Dairy Queen next door—she shortcuts down a dirt road and pulls up to a brick ranch-style house surrounded by tall trees and freshly mowed pastures. Greeted by her sister, Beth, 31, who is visiting with her 16-month-old daughter, Ashley, Yearwood lets loose a rebel whoop, hops out of the car and swoops her niece up into her arms. "I miss seeing Ashley learn to walk and start to talk," she says wistfully. "I really grew up in a very normal way. I sometimes think I'm not strange enough to be doing what I'm doing, living the life I'm living."

Still, it is exactly the life that she began plotting while growing up on the family's 30-acre farm, listening to Elvis and Patsy Cline albums. ("We still watch old Elvis movies on the bus when we're touring," she confides. "I know they're cheesy, but they're still great.") While she did appear in church musicals and talent shows. Yearwood didn't begin singing professionally until after she graduated from Nashville's Belmont College, where she took business courses and learned "what a record contract looked like and what a publishing deal involved." There, too, she met fellow student Chris Latham, now 27, whom she married in 1987.

Working in the office of a Nashville record company ("I was hired to answer phones and order the liquid paper"), she began singing demo tapes for local songwriters at $50 apiece. In 1989 a friend hired her to sing a duet with another struggling demo singer, the aforementioned Brooks. "It was," she recalls, "instant friendship."

About to release his first record, Brooks told Yearwood. "If I'm lucky enough to have a success, I want us to work together." He made good on his promise the following year by offering Yearwood. who by then had landed her own deal with MCA, the coveted opening-act slot in his 1991 arena tour. While the exposure helped boost her career, the time away from home contributed to the deterioration of her marriage. "My success played a part in it," she says of her 1991 divorce from Latham.

"But Chris and I were great friends before, and we've remained that way. And since he's in music publishing, he's one of the first people I call when I'm looking for songs."

As for tabloid reports of a Brooks-Yearwood romance, Trisha scoffs. "If people believe that," she says, "they also believe the stuff on the next page about three-headed babies."

For now, Yearwood downplays her six-month, long-distance relationship with bassist Robert Reynolds, a member of country music's Mavericks. "I'm not looking for anything permanent," she says. "Having a family is more than I'm ready to undertake." For the moment at least, her career, and the countless obligations that go with it, keep her busy: This whirlwind visit home to Monticello includes a trip back to the Piedmont Academy, which she attended for 12 years and where her mother still teaches third grade. When she gets there, the kids are all wearing Trisha Yearwood T-shirts in honor of the hometown girl who made good.

The very next day, Yearwood is on the road again, off to a concert in Vermont. "This is exciting and wonderful and incredible," she gushes, then briefly frets, "but I do want a life at the end of it all. I don't want to be singing 'She's in Love with the Boy' when I'm 75 years old." Quickly, she brightens. "But I'm only 28," she says reassuringly. "There's plenty of time."

GAIL WESCOTT in Monticello

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