ARTS: Rising Star

STERLING – With a baseball cap pulled down over her blond hair and sunglasses perched on her freckled nose, Katy Benko still resembles most of the teenage athletes who are playing softball around her on the sun-baked diamonds at Claude Moore Park.

A few years ago, Benko would have happily joined them in the dugout. Her life ? and priorities ? are different now, but the competitive streak that once made her a high school star remains strong. Softball, like singing, is a compelling form of natural expression for the 21-year-old country music recording artist.

“This makes me miss it,” Benko said as she climbed onto a set of bleacher seats during the height of tournament play.

As six teams competed on three adjacent fields for a berth into the final round of the PONY National Championships, Benko recalled a similar afternoon when she went 8 for 11 to help the 14-and-under Fairfax Firebirds earn a top-10 finish.

“My swing was on that day,” she said, smiling at the memory. “That was one of my best days at the plate.”
Benko can still swing the bat, though these days it’s for a coed recreation league team in Herndon. Her arm is pretty good, too. She’ll prove that Friday at Pfitzner Stadium when she throws out the first pitch to officially open Katy Benko Night at the Potomac Cannons’ home game against the Winston-Salem Warthogs.

Even as her blossoming singing career is on the verge of whisking her away from the diamond and onto a huge arena stage, Benko is keenly aware of the influences that have shaped her success. Baseball and softball, it turns out, played a big role in providing Benko with the confidence and resilience to pursue a dream that began with a championship karaoke performance 12 years ago.

“I’ve always loved music and performing, but when I was a kid, I was an avid baseball player. My brothers [Kevin and Casey] played, so I wanted to play,” said Benko, who will also sing the national anthem and sign autographs during her appearance at the Cannons game. “I played baseball with all the boys for seven years… but it didn’t take me long to realize that the guys were too big, too strong and too cute. I switched to softball when I was 13.

“When you play ball, you have to be willing to learn new things and work to get them. That belief has been instilled in me and it’s the same in music,” she explained. “The first time I tried to sing [Martina McBride’s] ‘Broken Wing,’ I couldn’t do it. I really had to work at it.”

Eight and a half years of voice lessons are just a small part of the work that Benko has put into her career. Her debut CD, titled “Float,” has been widely praised by disc jockeys across the country. Her current single, “Walkin’,” has received airplay on 40 stations and her first hit, “Love me like I’m leaving,” earned Katy a place in the WMZQ Smackdown Hall of Fame.

“I love this CD. I’m so proud of it because now I know I’m capable of it. It’s so fulfilling,” Benko said. “I always knew it was possible, but I knew it would be a lot of work.”

The solo CD was more than a decade in the making. Benko, whose major influences growing up were Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Elvis and Gene Kelly, discovered a passion for performing at the Reston Community Center Young Actor’s Theater when she was 7. By her sophomore year at Oakton High School, Benko’s four-octave vocal range brought her international acclaim.

In 1998, at the age of 15, Benko was crowned World Champion Teen Vocalist at the World Championships of Performing Arts ? a competition that featured more than 1,000 contestants from 30 countries. A year later, after repeating as teen champion, Benko opened for Brooks & Dunn at Nissan Pavilion.

“Country is real music. It’s changing, but it’s still music that means something. I don’t see any other place I’d be happy. I like everything about country music and that’s where I want to be.”

It is with that thought in mind that Benko ventured to Nashville in January to record her first full-length CD, which she introduced to a sold-out audience at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java in April. Produced by Anthony Von Dollen and released on the independent KT Records label, the 14-song disc took only a week and a half to complete.

“‘Float’ is really special to me because it describes perfectly where I am and how I feel,” Benko said. “I could have written it myself. The first time I heard that song I knew it was great.”
Country music fans seem to have the same response to Benko.

The self-described “girl next door” ? the one who prefers blue jeans and T-shirts and likes to shop at the mall with her friend and renowned keyboardist Julie Crosson ? has an appeal that transcends any of her lyrics.

“When I’m onstage I have the time of my life. I feel more at home up there than I do in my bedroom,” said Benko, who was recently named one of the 100 People to Watch in the new millennium by Washingtonian magazine.

“I definitely have an outgoing personality. I love to perform for people,” she continued. “When I was 9, I was a little apprehensive because it was all new to me. It took some time, but it got to the point where it’s fun.”

The fun is evident in her performances, especially when she’s singing up-tempo songs like “Don’t ever let me go” ? a crowd favorite.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” Benko explained. “When I sing, the audience is getting to know me.”
And, the more they get to know her, the more they seem to like her.

Benko got her start by opening for some of country music’s most popular artists ? Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell and Brad Paisley among them ? but she’s proven in the past three years that she can draw a crowd on her own. Her concerts at Sylvana’s in Herndon and Jammin’ Java always sell out.

“I have a real loyal fan base in this area and that means a lot to me. I care about my fans. I care about my audience,” she said. “I can’t do what I do if I don’t have an audience.”

Which is why Benko eagerly signs autographs after every show and makes it a point to encourage the young singers who have chosen her as a role model. When she is not performing or rehearsing with her band, Benko spends weekday afternoons giving voice lessons to aspiring artists.

“It’s so gratifying to work with a young girl and watch her face light up when she gets something that she’s been struggling with,” she said. “I love being able to share what I know with them.”

And Benko has plenty to offer her students and country music.

As “Float” suggests, she’s not where she wants to be, but she’s not where she was.

Wherever she is headed, one thing is certain: She won’t go there alone.

“Everyone that I’m close to has helped mold me,” said Benko, whose father, John, serves as her co-manager along with Nashville’s Marty Gamblin. “I’m very lucky to say I didn’t have to do it on my own. I’m not just doing this for me. There are a lot of other people who have been supportive of me and I don’t want to let them down.

“I know I can sing, but I can’t tell you how good I am. That’s in the eye of everyone else,” she said. “When I was 6 or 7, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll be the first female major league baseball player.’ Then I thought I’d be a lawyer, but then I knew I wanted to sing. Now I can’t imagine anything but being a singer.”

Staff writer Dave Utnik can be reached at (703) 878-8051.