NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - The little girl with the big pigtails cautiously approaches Jenna Thomas on the grounds of the Chasco Fiesta music festival and offers a shy smile and a quick wave, "Hi, Jenna."
"Hi. How are you?" Jenna responds and smiles as the girl's face erupts into a wide smile.
Jenna Thomas is now 18 years old and a recent signee to the Nashville division of Rust Records, an independent label with a distribution deal through Universal Records. Her debut record with the label will be out by October or the beginning of 2006. Her first single should hit radio by the end of this summer. She's a celebrity in New Port Richey, a growing city north of Tampa on the Gulf of Mexico side of the state where she was born and raised. But she counts Toledo as a second home because it's the birthplace of her mother, Marylou, and the home of several relatives.
On this cool Florida night at the beginning of March, Jenna took a step closer toward a country career that she had predicted since she was a little girl who promised her father, Mike, that he could play the drums for her when she became famous.
By 7 o'clock, Mike is misting up backstage as he's reminded of his little girl's promise. "Don't even go there, man. I'll completely lose it." But minutes later he's on the stage with his daughter, playing the drums as Jenna's golden voice booms throughout the festival grounds now filled with 5,000 fans. Many of them came to see the night's two headliners, Buddy Jewell and Phil Vassar, but some came to see the local girl who has been performing in the community since she was 10 years old.
She was singing long before that.
"Gosh, she used to sing in the back seat of the car, and I'd scream, 'Make her stop,' " her older sister, Dana, said earlier at their home with a laugh. "She'd sing all the time."
As she sings now, Ken Cooper, the 33-year-old president of Rust Records and former lead singer of Atlantic Records hard rock group Sinomatic, watches from the wings as his newest product rips through a half-hour set of ballads and up-tempo songs.
Despite a career in rock, Cooper is well-connected in Nashville. A partner in the group is Ron Shapiro a prominent name in town who is managing the career of Julie Roberts. Cooper's connections also include Jeffrey Steele, the author of numerous No. 1 hits, who will be writing songs with Jenna in Nashville beginning next month. By the summer, Jenna will be singing four or five nights a week at Cowboys Night Club in Dothan, Ala., tweaking her stage presence in anticipation of a tour to promote her album.
"She's a raw talent, but that's my job - to develop her," Cooper says. "But she's got the look and the voice. What more could you want?"
As Vassar finishes his set later, he reiterates Cooper's assessment. "How about that Jenna Thomas," he yells to the crowd. "She's awesome, and she's hot too."
Told of Vassar's comment later, Jenna blushes, "Really?"
She's on her way.