Tornados are common in Oklahoma, but nobody out there had ever seen a whirlwind like Katrina Elam until she hit that stage at the 4-H talent show.
She was all of nine years old a head-turning, smart, determined young lady. She's still that way now at twenty. But in an instant on that day, when she belted out her first notes with a conviction so unexpected that her mother burst into tears, Katrina's world turned inside out.
And as she ran back to her mother, afraid that somehow she had upset her, Katrina already knew what she would do with the rest of her life.
She had, just like that, become a singer.
The story begins at that moment and runs through countless performances in her home state, diverts to Nashville, where she started chasing her dreams as a seventeen-year-old on her own, and leads to Katrina Elam, one of the strongest debut albums in recent years.
Her voice sassy and strong on the up-tempo cuts, intimate and heartfelt on ballads draws from a deep country well; and blends into a sound that's both classic and contemporary. Her songs she wrote or co-wrote all but two are personal and universal. The playful infatuation of "I Want A Cowboy," the assertiveness of "Normal," the bruised innocence of "The Breakup Song", each offers glimpses into moments from her life.
But to really savor this album, you have to look beyond the obvious. Her clear-headed determination, her willingness to challenge herself, to follow in the footsteps of her heroes, to conquer the music business on her own terms, are just as important as the talent and beauty that Katrina brings to the table.
That competitive streak and those high standards, trace back even further than the talent show back to when, by her own admission, Katrina had no interest in singing at all.
"I have videos of me goofing around and trying to sing when I was little," she laughs, blushing as she remembers. "It was terrible. I was just screaming. Up until that talent show, I'd never really sung a single note."
Instead, she had cultivated "normal" interests at home with her parents and older sister in Bray, a tiny crossroads in the middle of oil country in Oklahoma. Downtown was a school, a gas station and that's it; there wasn't even a stoplight within sight. Pastures, trees, horses and open, empty space stretched in all directions. A visit to Wal-Mart, thirty miles away, was an adventure.
Katrina's dad was an oil worker, gone each morning at five and back at three. Mom stayed at home. Dinners were shared at the family table. Music was a part of the picture, but no more than in any typical household: There was a grandmother who played a little piano, an uncle who strummed a guitar and a radio that played in the background.
In this nurturing climate, Katrina somehow developed a precocious, take-charge personality. Even at four or five she took the lead when playing with her friends. "They'd come over and say, 'hey, let's play newscaster. And I would always say, 'No, we have to have a script. We have to practice. We have to get the video camera and record it.' Even if we were just playing with dolls, I had to make sure that we did it right."
And so it was with her singing. Not only that: With all the seriousness she had mustered into organizing doll dramatics, she began getting a hold of albums. Seated by the speaker, she'd play each track again and again, taking notes. She got herself a little karaoke machine, recorded her versions of those same songs and played them back, this time critiquing her own renditions. "I'd draw big circles around the parts I needed to fix and then I'd record it again until I got it where I wanted it to be."
Word spread about the preteen chanteuse. People started calling her mother, asking if Katrina could sing at their party, their wedding, their corporate event. The calendar filled with dates: On a typical day, after school, Katrina would play softball until her mother picked her up and they hit the road to some gig in Oklahoma City, ninety minutes away. Katrina would change clothes and put on her own makeup in the car. Afterwards, they'd drive back to Bray, arriving as late as three a.m.