Part 2 

Nashville Bound

It's not surprising that Lauren would seek fame and fortune as a country music singer. Her mother, Betty Martin, once had the same dream. She followed it from Varina to Blacksburg, where she met Lauren's father, John, who attended Virginia Tech. A romance blossomed. Together, they took the dream on the road. Martin's future in country music looked bright. She recorded a song which made it onto Billboard's country charts: "Don't You Feel it Now," which peaked at No. 77 for four weeks in 1978.

"She had a beautiful voice with an amazing range," remembers Niess. Then, their lives spent chasing dreams took an unexpected detour. "Jennifer was conceived in Pueblo, Colo. while we were on the road," he says smiling. "Betty got pregnant and fate changed her plans of making it big in Nashville."

Nearly 19 years later, their hopes and dreams again turn toward Nashville — but this time it's hope for Lauren's success and the pursuit of her dream. "Now we are living our lives vicariously through our daughter," says Niess.

As a child growing up in Mechanicsville, Lauren loved the outdoors. "I was such a tomboy," she confesses. A precocious child, she learned quickly to use charm and persistence to get her way. Even today these qualities rarely fail her. "If I could turn back time it would be to when I was five or six. I would come home, throw my book bag on the floor, pack a lunch and take off on my pony and not come home 'til dark." Those days she dreamed of becoming a veterinarian. That was before "Star Search."

By 1990 most households had the multichanneled options of cable television, but not the Niesses. There was no MTV, no VH1. Still, Friday nights were spent huddled around the television, and for 10-year-old Lauren, nothing was more anticipated than "Star Search": the now defunct program where would-be stars competed to win over a panel of judges and an audience for cash and prizes. "We used to watch "Star Search" and I always wanted to be on it. I made a video, sent it in, and then, they went off the air," Lauren says matter-of- factly, as if this is the only reason she is not famous today.

Three years later on her 13th birthday, her mom surprised her with a small karaoke player and microphone, and a tape of Mariah Carey's "Dream Lover." "I thought it was the best thing since peanut butter," she laughs. "I sang that tape about 1,000 times, I had everybody so sick of it."

Niess was surprised by his 13-year-old daughter's talent — and devotion. "We thought she'd tire of it and move on to something else, but she didn't."

"Karaoke night on Wednesdays at Gus' Italian Cafe. That's what did it for me," laughs Lauren. It was here that Lauren met C.B. Southward, a karaoke regular at the Hanover pizza place and eatery. After hearing Lauren sing, he introduced himself to her parents and offered to share his equipment. "He had a really expensive setup and had a whole kit and caboodle of CDs and tapes," recalls Lauren. The two were a regular karaoke duo at Gus' for two years.

Their karaoke gigs were a midweek outlet for Southward, but for Lauren these Wednesday nights — whether singing before an audience of five or 50 — fostered dreams of stardom — and Nashville.

She practiced at home before the mirror, listening closely to the instrumental surface of each new song she added to her play list. She trained her voice to spin low like Wynnona's, then open up and leap into a crescendo like Trisha Yearwood's. Lauren loves singing more than anything — it's what she feels she does best.

But at a time when most teen-agers struggle to be accepted, Lauren lost friends. For two years she was a member of the Lee Davis song and dance ensemble, New Horizons, and a featured soloist. What Lauren saw as exercising her rightful talent, her classmates viewed as an exercise in self-importance. "By the end of sophomore year all the girls hated me and were jealous," she says caustically.

Lauren saw herself at age 14 as a diamond in the rough. She experimented with makeup, painting on a fresh face of glamour and sophistication. She ditched her tomboy clothes for glitzy dresses and trendy outfits. She changed her hair. Through these experiments, Lauren gained confidence in her looks — confidence she needed to perform.

By her 16th birthday, Lauren was a regular performer at Westhaven Grill, The Quarterdeck and Rick's Cafe in the West End. She even landed gigs at The Tobacco Company and sang at clubs on the Eastern Shore. Lauren's dad, her most faithful fan, accompanied her then, as he does now, to every show — running sound checks, setting up equipment and introducing her to whatever crowd turns out.

Then came a late-night meeting at Shoney's in Mechanicsville. Producer Ron Fitzgerald was looking for a female artist to produce for a major label and he thought he had found one — in Atlanta. But a performance videotape of Lauren slipped to him by bass player Mike Cheney caused Fitzgerald to think twice. Cheney and Fitzgerald met Niess and Lauren at the local restaurant to discuss something the then 16-year-old Lauren knew was only a matter of time: record deals and Nashville. "Ron said she had more natural performance abilities than most veteran performers," Niess says. "We talked for what seemed forever. They must have had 12 cups of coffee."

Fitzgerald was sold on Lauren and soon had her in the recording studio producing "By Request," a compilation album of Lauren's 10 most-requested cover songs.

Her dream of becoming a star felt an arm's length away. The distance also left her largely friendless at Lee Davis.

But if this is the price of celebrity, it's a price Lauren is willing to pay.

Throughout her senior year at Lee Davis, Lauren was all but a ghost, taking only the required English and government courses she needed to graduate June 16. She didn't participate in any of the school's extracurricular activities. She chose not to go to her senior prom. Lauren, who dates Don Sykes, 24, the drummer in her band, acknowledges she feels more comfortable around an older group of friends.

"Right now, I'm bored just waiting for [graduation] to come, I'm just bored," she says.

But perhaps more than boredom is the issue of time. "I've lost a lot of girlfriends and some boyfriends because I'm always working."

After morning classes at school, an afternoon at the Richmond Technical Institute — where she took classes to be a certified hairstylist — and a late afternoon babysitting job, Lauren rushes home to get ready for a gig. Lauren is visibly exhausted. Hair pulled back and flushed from the heat, she falls onto the couch with a sigh and a smile just as she sinks daily into her routine. This determination to push past everydayness sets Lauren apart from most teen-agers. Still, her dream is the very same dream of countless other teen-age girls who believe they too have what it takes to be a country music star.

Since graduating, Lauren works part-time in a beauty salon, baby-sits and juggles two to three singing gigs a week at either Brookside Seafood or Boulevard Deli. Although these singing gigs haven't exactly made Lauren rich, she fares quite well. "Of course she does it for the money," her father says. At $200 to $250 for a three-hour performance, $3-per-hour baby-sitting wages are mere pocket change. Also, Lauren's been in the recording studio, putting the finishing touches on her first album of all-original material.

The songs on her new album, which is financed mainly by Fitzgerald, are written by Fitzgerald and Nashville songwriter Gary Burr. Burr has written songs for the Oakridge Boys, Juice Newton and most recently, Faith Hill. Remember Newton's "Love's Been a Little Bit"? It's now being re-released by Lauren, who hopes Burr's songwriting cachet will help launch her name next into the celebrity spotlight.

Lauren's grandmother, Margaret Martin — who lives with the family at their home in Battlefield Green — is cautiously optimistic. "She's a very talented girl; she got her musical talent from her mother, who must have gotten hers from her father. It certainly wasn't from me."

Still, Martin seems quietly aware of the long shot of making it big in Nashville and the reality of ill-fated dreams. "You can be the best and have the best songs, but it takes more than that. I don't know what it is," she trails off.

Continue to Part 3

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