Part 3 

Nashville Bound

"Independence is the courage to stand alone" reads the inked-in calendar pinned next to the bureau in Lauren's room. A white graduation gown hangs from a floor lamp. Sprawled out on her queen-size waterbed are show clothes — dresses, pants, vests, tops. "This is the part I hate, picking out clothes 'cause I can never decide what to wear. If I'm ever running late it's because of this." It's 6:15 p.m. and Lauren has less than an hour and a half to get ready for tonight's performance at Brookside Seafood restaurant. A Shania Twain CD plays on the stereo; Lauren sings along.

"You want to see a transformation?" she asks laughingly. "This is the before," she says posing clean-faced in an ivory robe. A quick 45 minutes later, her hair is dry, curled and sprayed; makeup is in place. Smooth and twinkly, Lauren flashes a smile and looks every bit the celebrity ready to meet fans and sign autographs.

Tonight, Lauren and her father take separate cars to her gig at Brookside Seafood. Niess pops into Lauren's room to make sure she knows how to get to the restaurant in Richmond's North Side. He reminds Lauren to mention her soon-to-be up-and-running Web site: www.jenniferlauren.com and that her producer has chosen "Change of Heart" as the title of her new album — rather than "Lookout" or Lauren's choice — the self-titled "Jennifer Lauren."

In addition to being his daughter's biggest fan, he is also her promoter. In contrast, Lauren's mom, while supportive, chooses to stay on the sidelines of her daughter's career. It is Niess' voice that details Lauren's activities on the Jennifer Lauren hotline. He writes and sends out newsletters and bulletins that update the whereabouts of the "teen singing sensation." And it is her dad who deals with record companies. "It's easy to get on a label," remarks Niess knowingly. "What's hard is to get the label to come up with promotional money."

But Niess is confident it's just a matter of time and negotiations: "I imagine when [Nashville record companies] hear her, they'll start bidding against one another. The label who promises the most promotional money will get Jennifer. That's what happened to LeAnn Rimes."

Visions of Nashville seem as much a part of Niess' dream as his daughter's. "It isn't anything any parent wouldn't do for their kid. Plus, it's good to see her have the chance her mother didn't because Betty really should have been there. She was every bit as good if not better than Jennifer. I help her keep her skills sharp, keep her honed. I feel like a trainer trying to get my prize fighter ready for the big fight."

Despite her father's confidence and her own, Lauren feels in the pit of her stomach the pressure to succeed. "I'm really scared because there are a hundred out there who are prettier than me, who can sing better than me. This is all I've got — and it's in my blood. Plus, I think I'd be letting everybody I know down if I didn't go for it. I just have my fingers and toes crossed."

According to RCA Records publicist April Taylor, Lauren should keep her fingers and toes clenched. The A & R department (Artist and Repetoire) in Nashville receives anywhere from 10 to 20 unsolicited packages a week from aspiring country music stars. "It's our unwritten policy to stamp each and every one of them return to sender. They're never even opened," acknowledges Taylor. "Basically that's the bottom line of everybody [record companies] in Nashville. The big labels spend most of their time looking for songs for their already-signed artists to record and turn into hits."

But Taylor concedes that if there is a way to break into the big time, Lauren's going about it the right way. "She needs to be represented by an entertainment lawyer or referred by someone in the business, have a manager and make an appointment. Then, her chances are one in 500,000 of making it to the level of a LeAnn Rimes."

Below the words "Crab legs and baby-back ribs $12.95" on the sign at Brookside Seafood restaurant reads "tonight Jennifer Lauren." Inside, the lounge is dark and cool, smelling of sea salt and Old Bay seasoning. More than a dozen regulars sit at the four-sided bar peeling steamed shrimp and drinking Coors Light. If they've heard Lauren sing before it's by chance.

A contingent of nearly 20 Jennifer Lauren fans sits at American-legion-looking tables in the far corner next to the stage area, some drink long necks, some gulp iced-tea from plastic pitchers. The chatter is constant as they wait for orders of chicken wings — and for Lauren to take the floor.

While Niess checks the sound, Lauren mingles among familiar faces and gracefully, like a pageant contestant, introduces herself to those newcomers, who after tonight, could be fans.

She starts her show with Wynnona's "No One Else On Earth," one of her favorites, and judged by the applause, one of the audience's also. In a long black sparkly dress, a grown-up looking Lauren sways under the dim red lounge spotlight.

She breaks into the LeAnn Rimes hit "How Could I Live" and a couple at the bar move to the linoleum dance floor. A barfly, previously taken by the NASCAR highlights flashing on TV, looks over and mouths the words to this song that he, too, knows well.

Lauren pauses to read a cocktail napkin pressed to her palm: "This is a dedication to James from you know who — a Reba McEntire song. She's one of my favorites too." Dedication delivered, she sings "Forever Young" as an obvious James leads his partner to the floor.

Today, Lauren's make-shift stage and audience are small. Next week she heads to Atlanta for the final mixing of "Change of Heart." In August Lauren is Nashville bound. She's got a place stay at the home of Trisha Yearwood's bass player, a friend a former member of her mother's band. A native Richmonder who is an artist manager with Big Fish Entertainment in Nashville has offered to help Lauren get contacts. And booking agent Dick Beechum, according to Niess, has already spent more than 10 minutes singing Lauren's praises to the senior vice president of Sony Records. And there's talk of an introduction by golf-pro coach and Lauren fan, Jack Bell, to Madonna's manager, Doug McNeill. If contacts increase her chances, Lauren's connected. And if Jennifer Lauren has her way, her trip to Nashville won't end back in Mechanicsville.

On the dance floor the pace quickens to a two-step beat, a step that everybody here knows, though most just sit and listen. Before them Jennifer Lauren belts out words to a song she knows by heart — country lyrics that tug and embody her dream: "I've got a one way ticket on a west-bound train/Gonna spread my wings and see

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