In a world where hype can often overshadow substance, Katy Benko is a refreshing example of talent attracting media attention. She has shared bills with Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Rogers, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, and Toby Keith, has twice held a massive crowd enthralled on the grounds of the Capital Mall, and has won international talent competitions. In one of the toughest and most respected proving grounds for new talent anywhere - the Washington, DC, area - Katy went in her first year as a professional singer from a debut gig at a small club to headlining the legendary Birchmere.
Katy began her performing career with a serious interest in acting at the age of 8. It wasn't long, though, before the director of the theater recognized her singing talent and urged Katy and her parents to pursue that avenue.
It is a measure of her natural prowess that at an age when many youngsters aren't aware of singers the caliber of Patsy Cline, Katy knew and loved the legend's singing and, what's more, knew why she loved it. "Patsy’s voice inspired something in me," she says. "I was just a kid, but I was so amazed by what she could do with her voice, by how much control and feeling she had. I wanted to learn how to do that.” At age 14, Katy told her parents she wanted to be a country singer.
She had already built a strong regional following with frequent guest appearances at venues in six states and performances of the National Anthem at major sporting events, but it was an international, Olympic-style competition that would help her turn the corner. "I needed to see if I really had what it takes at that level," she said.
She did. At 15, she earned the title World Champion Teen Vocalist at the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. A year later she was named Grand Champion Vocalist and bested 1,200 other acts in several categories to be named first runner-up to the Grand Champion Performer of the World.
In January 1999 she formed her own band in the DC area, kicking off the year with a few small club dates. She opened for artists like Kevin Sharp and Glen Campbell, and gained such a loyal following that she sold out the Reston Community Center by word of mouth. That helped land her a slot headlining the renowned Birchmere, capping an incredible one-year rise. Washingtonian magazine named her "one of 100 people to watch in the new millennium."
In the midst of her meteoric rise, Katy decided to finish her final year of high school and to play her last year of competitive softball, her greatest passion after music. Sports had, in fact, provided Katy another kind of stardom. She had been a 12-year-old All-Star in an all-boy league, once being walked intentionally with the bases loaded after hitting a grand slam, and twice taking silver medals in batting competitions with well over 100 boys.
At age 13, she switched to the girls' league, comprised of girls from 13-18, and this time took gold in the batting competition despite being one of the youngest players. As a star on her high school girls' softball team, she was the focus of a media frenzy after a Washington Post feature described her athletic and musical exploits, chronicling both a game-winning hit and her opening slot for Kenny Rogers at the Patriot Center. She received an abundance of print coverage throughout the DC region, and national attention on broadcast networks including CNN, Fox, and ESPN.
With the 2003 release of Float, the talented singer's already storied career made its formal entry into the national spotlight. Produced by Anthony Von Dollen and featuring some of Nashville's finest studio musicians, Float captured the essence of a singer whose talent and star power are well-established on the concert stage.
While radio normally shuns independent artists, “Walkin’” was played across the United States and Europe climbing into three charts, and peaking at number twenty-five on the World Indie Country Chart. In 2004 New Music Weekly out of California picked Katy as one of the top ten independent country acts of the new century. To top things off, The Washington Area Music Association awarded Katy with two “Wammies;” one for ‘New Artist’ and one for ‘Debut Recording.’
It seemed all the stars had aligned – Katy was on her way. But on the eve of what should have been her way to the top, misfortune struck. In June of 2002, while in the process of getting Float ready to be released, Katy was in an auto accident. Not only did she suffer severe muscular damage to her neck, but she also had damage to her left inner-ear. She tried with all she had to fight through the injuries, release her album and make it succeed, but it was too much. Katy was forced to stop the distribution of Float and greatly restrict her live performances.
While desperately trying to seek treatment for her injuries, Katy heard what no professional wants to hear – the damage to her left ear could be potentially career-ending. It would be a matter of learning how to sing through the impairments and hope, that in time, the injuries might heal.
Although Katy was incredibly discouraged, she refused to give up. She began teaching herself how to sing through the problems with her left ear. But fate would start to turn her way again. In early 2005, she began to notice the first signs that her injuries were healing. She continued to see progress throughout that year, and in 2006 she was about ready to make her comeback.
She began doing a few small local shows and continued to work on her voice. She also began writing songs, adding another dimension to her already well-rounded package. But the comeback would have to wait a little longer. Katy had other things on her mind. One of those things was to marry her longtime sweetheart in August, 2006.
Katy and her husband, Ryan, met in high school and dated all through college. Ryan was an ROTC student at George Mason University, and upon graduation he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. He then joined the Virginia Army National Guard. Just three months after Katy and Ryan were married Ryan was activated and sent to Fort Dix for training before being deployed to Iraq.
Shortly after Ryan left, Katy wrote her best song yet. “A Soldier’s Wife” describes the feelings and hardships a wife goes through while her husband is deployed. Written from the standpoint of the wife to the husband, the song describes how hard it is to be alone, but that even through the distance her love and pride continue to grow stronger everyday.
The song is already creating a lot of buzz. Katy’s connection to the song is obvious when you hear her sing it, but that connection is evident in every song that she sings. It is a technique that has brought Katy to the level she is at, and the lessons she learned from the likes of Patsy Cline continue to make her a compelling performer. "I don't shield myself," she says simply. "I pour myself into every word of every song I sing, whether I’ve written it or not, and people can really feel like they're getting to know me. They are. I don't hide, and they can see that."
That sincerity and Katy's ability to wrap her remarkable voice around a lyric have her well on the road to fulfilling the Washingtonian's prophecy. Despite all she’s been through, Katy is back; better than ever. And this is a young woman the world will continue to watch.