Marty Gamblin of Nashville, Tenn., first heard of Katy Benko after she won the World Championship of Performing Arts in the late 1990s. Gamblin, a country artist manager, soon became the Oakton junior's co-manager.
"We had to work our schedule around softball," Gamblin remembers.
Benko, 20, has since hung up her cleats and put away her bat, and has turned all her energy to her other passion, country music. In January, the Herndon resident traveled to Nashville to record her first professionally produced and engineered compact disc, "Float," which will be released April 11 at a performance at Jammin' Java in Vienna.
"She has run into some walls and a lot of people would be discouraged by now," Gamblin said. "She has maintained her drive and this product she has now has just gotten better. It reaffirms to me what I felt in the beginning. That she has something special."
THE CD was financed through investors and her own savings. The songs were purchased from writers who have worked with performers such as Lee Ann Womack, Faith Hill and Lonestar, and the musicians are considered some of the top studio players in Nashville.
"We spared no expense," said Benko. "We had professional engineers, musicians and writers. For me to say I went through the same process as Faith Hill and Shania Twain … I'm so fortunate."
"Float" contains all original songs, plus a bonus track, "The Show," which she actually recorded on a disc of cover tunes to shop around to record labels when she was 16.
"It gives you an idea of how much you can grow," Benko said the song, which is the original recording. "I hear a difference [in my voice] more than others."
Benko and her Nashville producer, Anthony Von Dollen, who has worked for major record labels, selected the songs and convinced the writers to allow someone without a contract to record their songs.
"I've got the track record in this town and the other part was her," Von Dollen said. "They looked at what she brings to the table. In Nashville, writers will tell you if they are willing to take a gamble on you. If you fail, it could hurt them. They listened to her and the bottom line is they liked how she sounds."
She spent two weeks in the studio, at times putting in 12-hour days just recording and re-recording the same song over and over again. "They get seven or eight good tracks of the whole song and afterwards they do a vocal copy. They go line by line of each track and take the best one," Benko said. "So the best first line might come from track three and the best second line from track seven, and so on."
Prior to recording the vocals, she also spent two days in the studio singing the songs, just so the musicians could record their music. At all times, she was in a little room by herself connected to everyone through a pair of head phones.
"Everyone is disjointed," Benko said. "I'm doing vocals in a room and hear a little voice in my head saying try it this way or do it again. It was real choppy."
"THE THING that impressed me about Katy is that she has a wide range of musical knowledge. She could sing you Patsy Cline or Martina McBride and she always has a deep appreciation of the music," Gamblin said. "I'm impressed with her vocal ability, but also that she is a poised young lady. She was focused on what she wanted to do and whatever Katy Benko set out to do, she wasn't going to be denied until she got there."
Still, Benko knows a music career is not guaranteed. Since graduating from Oakton in 2000, she has earned 30 credits at George Mason University. She decided to take a year off from school to concentrate on her music.
In addition, Benko teaches voice lessons to 11 students and performs locally with her band. She will also perform for the fourth straight year in the WMZQFEst in May.
"I'm a beginner song writer. One day, I hope I will be able to write and record my own songs," Benko said. "I'm sure there are lots of things I could do [if music does not work out], but I've always been convinced this will work. I'm learning all I can."
Her optimism is infectious. "The thing I liked about Katy when I first heard her was that I was blown away by the whole package and I felt she would be signed by a major label soon. And when it didn't happen, I was surprised by that," Van Dollen said. "I think the CD really stands up to product put out by major labels. People will buy her music because they love it and not because it's something a major label crammed down their throats."
"In this business, if you don't have the drive you will get knocked down and defeated," Gamblin said. "I felt this girl is going to be here for the long haul.
"I have to believe in my heart of hearts that one day Katy Benko will be the star she deserves to be."