Lauren Alaina once told an interviewer that she wanted to perform at the Grand Ole Opry by the time she was 16. "You've got high hopes," she was told. As it turns out, she hadn't begun to envision all that was in store for her before entering her junior year in high school.
She was the runner-up on Season 10 of American Idol, where her strong vocal performances earned comparisons to the genre's premier vocalists, Carrie Underwood and Martina McBride. In January, The New York Times called her "the best singer so far this season." A record-breaking 122.4 million votes were cast for Lauren and Idol winner Scotty McCreery. The final show garnered 29.3 million viewers and 38.6 million people tuned in to see the winner's name announced.
Soon after, she made her much-anticipated Opry debut to sing her debut hit, "Like My Mother Does." "I dreamed since I was a kid of being on that stage because my daddy grew up playing the banjo and he's really good at it," she says. "He always wanted me to perform at the Grand Ole Opry because he never got the chance. When I was little, he told me he wanted me to perform there and it would be as good as him getting to, and he was there. I need someone to pinch me because it was just the way it was supposed to be."
But she barely had time to reflect on her accomplishment because the achievements are coming fast and furious. Last summer, she was a cheerleader and pizza parlor employee. This summer, she signed a record deal with Mercury Nashville/19 Recordings/Interscope, presented at the CMT Music Awards and joined Martina McBride in a duet of "Anyway" at LP Field during CMA Music Fest. She's started recording her debut album and is now on the American Idols Live tour, which travels across the nation through September.
Although the venues and audience sizes have drastically changed in the last year, she's still doing what she's always done--singing for anyone who would listen whenever she got the chance.
She was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and raised in nearby Rossville, Ga., by her father, J.J., a chemical technician, and mother, Kristy, a transcriptionist. It was a musical household because her mother and older brother, Tyler, sang and her father is a multi-instrumentalist. Her parents played country and rock music in the house and Lauren found that she favored music – adult songs, not those made for children -- to television and was especially drawn to Shania Twain, Aerosmith and the Dixie Chicks.
When she was 3, her mother was listening to the Dixie Chicks' "When You Were Mine" until she turned the car off, but Lauren kept singing. "I heard this little voice continue to sing the song," Kristy says. "I absolutely marveled that she stayed with the music and knew every word to the song. We bought the karaoke version of the Dixie Chicks and we would sit Lauren up on the bar where we ate breakfast in my mother-in-law's restaurant. She would perform at 3 and never miss a beat."
Her first public performances came with a kids choir as well as an annual vacation spot that offered karaoke. "I would sing out by the pool deck for everybody," says Lauren, whose parents held the microphone that was too heavy for a 3 year old. "By four, she could sing like an 8 year old," Kristy says. "It was unbelievable." Word soon spread about her talent and she began receiving invitations to perform.
"As a mother, it was just cute," Kristy says. "But when she was six, my sister said, 'This kid really has a gift. You need to enter her in contests.'" Beginning in elementary school, she routinely landed the lead roles in school plays. "One of her little friend wanted the Dorothy role in The Wizard of Oz and the teacher wanted Lauren to be Dorothy," Kristy says. "Lauren pretended to be sick so she didn't take the role. She was bothered that she was beating out these other kids."
At age nine, she wrote her first song, "She's a Miracle," after her aunt was in a car wreck. She sang in church, restaurants, family holiday gatherings and anywhere else. Says Lauren, "I would grab up every opportunity I could," Lauren says. "I would go karaoke at any place within a 30-mile radius of where I lived. I would drive an hour just to sing. Any competition I would hear about I would enter."
At age 8, she entered the talent competition of the Southern Stars Pageant at the last minute and won. The next year she was among those selected to perform on the Kids talent stage at Chattanooga's Riverbend festival. She continued to perform on that stage annually until age 12, when she won the competition at age 12 that allowed her to perform on the festival's big stage. She traveled to Orlando when she was 10 to compete in the American Model and Talent Competition. She won the event, beating out 1,500 kids. She later joined the Georgia Country Gospel Music Association's children's group that performed at places such as Six Flags.
"I started coming to Nashville when I was about 12," she says. "I would go into the bars on Broadway before 6 p.m. and walk up to the people on the stage and ask if I could sing and they would let me. Half the time people weren't listening to me, but I thought I was cool." That's where she developed her stage presence and ability to feed off of a crowd. Offstage, she was continuing to develop as a songwriter and completed 10 that were considered worthy to record, so she began working with two producers about the time that the Idol opportunity presented itself at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena.
"I have always wanted to try out," she says. "When they lowered the minimum audition age to 15, I thought it was a sign I needed to try out. It's funny because I actually sang at Tootsies Orchid Lounge the day I auditioned. I sang with the band and they said, 'You need to run across the street and audition for American Idol. I had already auditioned and made it to the next round, but I couldn't tell anybody. I bought a pair of cowboy boots to celebrate."
It was during Idol that she first heard her debut single and first hit, "Like My Mother Does." "When they started playing it for me, I started crying because I went through this whole crazy journey and the only person who was there for me every step of the way was my mom. She didn't get any praises for it and I got all of the attention. I thought the song would be a great way to say thank you for her for all that she does for me. When she came in and heard it, she cried. It was a sign. Everybody was crying, even the piano player."
She's now recording her debut album with Nashville producer Byron Gallimore (Faith Hill, Tim McGraw). "It's definitely going to be country," she says. "I like singing uptempo, but I also like a good ballad every now and then.
"Country music has a way of telling a story that you automatically connect with when you hear it. Country music talks about real-life things that you have really happened, and I love that."
Lauren's debut album will showcase a voice that is mature and powerful beyond its teen years. "She has a very soulful yet country voice and she has tremendous range," Gallimore says. "She is able to cover a lot of ground. I have been really impressed at her 16 years of age that she is able to sing like she does and sell the songs like she does. She sings great and has made these songs her own. They don't sound like anyone else; they sound like Lauren."
She embarks on this next chapter with a newfound confidence and a polished set of performing skills. "I figured out throughout the show that I am who I am and I look the way I look, and the only one who can do anything about it is me," she says. "I learned people actually like my music, which is good to find out, so I am excited about putting the album out. Hopefully people will like it."
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