Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, dozens of curious folks are hovering near a dressing room where a historic summit meeting is taking place. Inside, Loretta Lynn, the queen of Nashville, is having a chat with Jessica Simpson, who is making a startling move into country music. They're discussing what they have in common, which tonight includes in Simpson's words ''boobs and sequins!'' The pop star just made her Opry debut wearing an extremely low-cut bodice. Lynn's sparkly blue gown is certainly more demure, but she too is rockin' a little décolletage tonight. ''We didn't care, did we?'' says Lynn, patting Simpson on the knee, sisters in cleavage. If there were any complaints, ''it didn't bother us at all. We thought, if they want to look down on us, let 'em see something!''
However much the gents in the balcony may have enjoyed the view, Simpson is hoping to avoid getting looked down on as she releases her first country album, Do You Know (which came out Sept. 9). Skeptics may say Joe Simpson's eldest daughter has no business in the same genre as the coal miner's daughter. But any fans feeling territorial better get used to their universe attracting mainstream stars. In recent years Bon Jovi, the Eagles, and Kid Rock have made stops in the country world, and now artists like Jewel, Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker, and Simpson are saying they're going country for the long haul, not just a quick hit. Mostly, these converts are greeted like Joe Lieberman at the Republican convention: with a hearty welcome that can't entirely mask the what-are-you-doing-here? suspicions.
That's certainly been Simpson's experience as she plugs her first country single, ''Come on Over,'' which has convinced many doubters with its catchy hook and irresistible steel-guitar licks. At radio, the song broke the record for highest country chart entrée by a debuting solo act (although it subsequently failed to crack the top 10). ''So far people have been really kind,'' says the 28-year-old Texas native, who cites Dolly, Loretta, and Patsy as heroines, and never completely lost her own twang. ''Even though sometimes it's backhanded, like 'I really wanted to hate this, but I like it.' I'm like, 'Wow! Okay. Thank you, I guess?' Still, I'd rather it be that way than the other way around.'' In this arena, Simpson arrives as both a superstar and a nobody. ''I definitely feel like I'm 19 again, like when I was starting out as a brand-new artist,'' she says, taking a break in the Opry greenroom from her own fangirl visits to Roy Clark's and Patty Loveless' dressing quarters. ''Meeting all the DJs, letting people get a sense of who I am and why I'm stepping over into country music...I think once people sit down with me, they understand that it's a good fit. The only [concern] is people thinking that I'm just trying to jump in for a little bit and then go back to pop.'' But, she insists, ''I'm here to stay.''
NEXT PAGE: ''Music is a huge part of what runs through my veins, and people forgot that about me because I was more famous for my personality.''