Singer stays in tune with goal of reaching stardom

16-year-old's putting in the hours as she pursues her career

April 23, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

She began singing at age 2, belting out tunes into a microphone hooked up to a tape recorder. By 8, she was singing so much that her grandmother bought her a karaoke machine.

At 13, Ashleigh Pennington sang at her birthday party and impressed guests, who encouraged her to sing more often. She traveled to Houston to compete in a singer-songwriter event and finished in second place.

Now 16, the Whiteford resident, an emerging talent as a county music singer and songwriter, is headed to venues far loftier than birthday parties and karaoke sessions.

Next month, the singer - who goes by the stage name of Ashleigh Marie - is scheduled to open for country star Jamie O'Neal at a festival in Arendtsville, Pa. In the coming months, she's booked to perform at events in three states. She recently turned in an impressive showing at an international songwriting competition judged by music professionals, including country singers LeAnn Rimes and Loretta Lynn, as well as Monte Lipman, president of Universal Records. And she's recording a CD of songs she wrote.

The industry is taking notice of the North Harford High School junior.

"She's in the 75th percentile of all the people I hear," said Tom Long, a Nashville-based creative director for Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, one of the world's largest music publishing firms.

She has a good chance of making it big, Long said. At this point, the main obstacle for Ashleigh is her age, he said.

"She's very, very gifted," said Long, who first heard Pennington sing at the Houston event, which he judged. "But she's young, and she needs a lot more experience behind her belt."

Pennington's talent strikes people who hear her for the first time, said Bob Bloom, general manager of WXCY, a country radio station in Havre de Grace. Bloom met the singer two years ago after a call from a friend at BMI, which represents songwriters, composers and music publishers. The friend had heard a demo tape of Pennington and called Bloom to say he should try to meet her.

"I get calls every day from people that tell me I have to hear their daughter or grandson sing, and there's no way I have time to hear them all," Bloom said. "But when someone from BMI calls and tells me they want me to listen to someone, I take notice."

Bloom met with Pennington and heard her sing.

"I couldn't believe the sound quality of her voice," Bloom said. "And she's just a kid."

The station played some of her songs - mostly upbeat country tunes with a pop sound - and conducted an on-air interview. The response was positive, Bloom said.

"We had people calling and asking who she was and where they could go and hear her play," he said.

Bloom said he asks Pennington to sing at charity events sponsored by the station and thinks it will help her become more comfortable on stage.

"The first time she got on stage, she just kind of stood there like a log," Bloom said. "Now she dances and moves around and interacts with the audience."

Bloom is hopeful she will continue to emerge.

"Hopefully she will make it big, and she won't hang up on me when I call her," he said.

In the meantime, Pennington is trying to keep her feet on the ground amid a busy schedule. When she's not performing, she's writing songs her small home studio.

In the converted room, speakers and recording equipment line one wall. Photos and posters of performers hang on the walls, along with a display of more than 20 CD covers, mostly singles she recorded.

Dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat, Pennington picked up her guitar and played a song she wrote. She said her biggest challenge in songwriting isn't finding the words, but finding words that don't rhyme.

"Somehow I get it in my head that it has to rhyme or it doesn't flow," she said. "But I'm working on that."

She prefers to write about her experiences to give her songs more meaning. Topics include family, former boyfriends and trips to Nashville.

"I want to invite people into my music, not bore them with it," she said.

Often she scribbles random thoughts on anything that's handy.

"I listen to LeAnn Rimes because she's my favorite singer and Billy Ray Cyrus to hear how they put their words together, and I just write," Pennington said.

Pennington realizes she must get herself to stand out among other artists, which is why she entered the International Songwriting Competition.

Nearly 15,000 songs were entered, and Pennington's "Crazy Over You" placed in the top 11 in her category and won an honorable mention.

"I entered to see how I would do, and I am happy with the results," Pennington said. "I'm not giving up, no matter what. I'm working to get to where I want to be and where I want to go. I want to be known."

CRAZY OVER YOU

sittin' here all by myself thinkin' of you every second of the day you you're like an addiction that I need twenty-four seven and you don't know what you do to me if I could only let you see

I get chills when you walk into the room when you look into my eyes I try not to show it but baby it's true I'm crazy over you

I never thought I'd be so lucky to find someone like you you have this sparkle in your eyes and then you kiss me oh you'll never know why

it's like lightning and thunder and when you strike I get hypnotized I try not to show it but baby it's true I'm crazy over you

[Words and music by Ashleigh Marie copyright 2005 all rights reserved. http:--ashleighmarie.com/home.html]

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