THE SECOND THING you notice about 19-year-old Courtney Smith - after her sparkling personality - is her spunk. That's the opinion of her father, Mark Smith, a marketing manager for air defense sensors at Northrop Grumman.
"Spunk best describes her and her personality," he says.
Growing up in Severna Park's Berrywood neighborhood, Courtney was always demonstrating that spunk and her athleticism on the playing field and the dance floor, where she continued to study tap, jazz and ballet long after friends had traded their toe shoes for high heels to attract guys.
"She's been an athlete since she was 4 years old," says Courtney's mom, Shirley Smith, a marketing specialist for Pennysaver. "We always knew that was what she was going to do."
The Smiths, who now live in Crownsville, have two daughters - Courtney and 16-year-old Ashley. Now delicate and feminine, Courtney was the "son" Mark Smith never had.
"For the longest time you didn't see that feminine side," he says. "I don't like to use the term tomboy, but she was so athletic - her speed, her great eye-hand coordination. We invested so much time, money and emotion into her athletic career."
Courtney played varsity soccer at Mount DeSales High School, a Catholic girls school in Catonsville. When she learned to play lacrosse, she made that varsity team, too. She also played great tennis, say her parents.
There was no question about her future. Offers came from colleges for sports scholarships, and Courtney settled on Salisbury State, where she played varsity soccer as a freshman. Her goal was to earn a degree in sports marketing.
But a new notion was interfering with the young woman's focus on school and sports. Deep in her heart, Courtney Smith, the athlete, wanted to be like Faith Hill, the country singer.
Music had always been secondary. She sang in the choir at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Severna Park, and loved to sing duets with her father at home, favoring music by Hill and Tim McGraw.
"I love sports, and I've played my whole life," Courtney says, "but sports and music are at the opposite ends of the spectrum."
When the dream of singing became overwhelming, Courtney left Salisbury and moved back home - partly, says her mother, because the school didn't offer a major in her field of marketing, and partly because of the music in her heart.
"Her leaving school was very hard for us," says Mrs. Smith. "Sports is all she's done since she was 4. This was really a surprise, but she's always had that part of her that wanted to perform." When her parents had guests in the house, Courtney would always find an excuse to sing or dance, her mother recalls.
"My first reaction to her decision was, `Oh, no,'" says her father. "It took awhile to stop thinking of it in my terms."
When she returned home in January of last year, Courtney went to work at the Macaroni Grill in Annapolis, an Italian-themed restaurant that includes music as part of its ambience.
"The first Macaroni Grill opened in Leon Springs, Texas, in 1988," says manager Matt Watson of Crofton. "The original owner was a true Italian who set out to create a spirit of old Italy."
While the Annapolis restaurant is now part of an international corporate chain, music remains part of its atmosphere. The clatter of dining stops abruptly when one of the waiters begins to sing "Happy Birthday" in Italian, or any number of operatic selections.
"I find myself stopping what I'm doing when they sing," says Watson. His wait staff includes nearly a dozen singers from Central County.
Courtney worked there a few months before volunteering to add singing to her wait-staff duties.
One night she was heard by customers Mike Hughes and business partner Erica Turner, owners of Mega Media Entourage, a recording facility in Landover.
"We were very impressed with her sound," says Turner. "She sounded like a Faith Hill or a Dixie Chick; her sound was very new."
Courtney is working with Turner - though she hasn't signed a contract, she says - on developing her demo package, a marketing tool that includes professional photos, a biography, and a compact disc with songs that demonstrate a singer's range.
An artistic development company will help a new artist shop himself or herself, says Turner. Courtney, who is continuing her studies part time at Anne Arundel Community College, has given herself one year to break into the business. "Years from now I can't look back and wish I had done something," she says. "Singing is my first love. I'll give it all I have for a year, and if it doesn't work out, I'll go back to studying for my career."
She has recorded a brief CD, and her father - for now Courtney's biggest fan - says, "When I listen to the CD she cut, the hair on the back of my neck stands up, she's so good."