Pretty country singer Keri Lea Finzen, armed with a big voice and a surprising Southern twang, already sounds like a big winner in the world of country music. At least she knows how to give thanks like one.
In a phone interview from Nashville, the 23-year-old Akron, Iowa, native said she had to thank God for the success she has enjoyed thus far in her brief professional singing career because He gave her the gift of song. She also sang out thanks to her family, her parents, Todd and Sandy Finzen of Akron, husband Eric Wendel and that town of Akron.
"My town has always been there for me. Every time I sing, they're there screaming," she said.
Chances are, some of them are up in Wisconsin screaming this weekend.
On Sunday, Keri Lea will complete four days of performances at the annual Country Fest at Cadott, Wisc. She is part of a group that is entertaining between sets by such headliners as Sara Evans, Neil McCoy, Josh Gracin, The Wreckers, Alan Jackson, Chris Cagle and Little Big Town. "I'm pretty excited. Very blessed," she said earlier this week.
The small town girl has been singing big since the age of 3, earning the nickname "Loretta Lynn" from her Grandma Ryan who loved the "coal miner's daughter." Her friends and family picked up on the name, and to this day, they're still calling her Loretta.
"Mom says when I was a baby, I would be in diapers and shoot back and forth on the floor and do little ooohs," she said of those first "singing" efforts.
She soon started singing gospel music in the church choir and, as a first-grader, even took part in the big Akron Variety Show, belting out "Tomorrow" and deciding then and there she wanted to be a fulltime singer. With her (south Akron?) twang, her outdoorsy lifestyle that included raising horses and going fishing, and a lifelong love of country music, the road to Nashville seemed inevitable.
Her earlier years led to endless performances at local and state fairs and competitions, farmers markets, sports events and community choirs. She was featured prominently in school and church choirs and musicals, and traveled and performed with the band Velvet Touch. When not singing, she kept active with sports, cheerleading and other school activities.
While still in high school, she was selected to sing the national anthem three consecutive years at state wrestling tournaments. And that led to an invitation to perform the National Anthem for the U.S. Olympic wrestling team.
After winning local and regional music competitions and cutting her first CD, an album of Christians songs, and, in 2003, a country CD, she moved to Nashville a year and a half ago. "And it's just phenomenal how things have been going," she said.
The Akron native sings regularly at Nashville clubs and honkytonks like the Second Fiddle, Legends, Tootsies, Nashville Palace and The Stage.
She is also getting her own band together when she gets back to Nashville from the latest road trip which included a pre-Wisconsin performance somewhere in New Jersey. "Hopefully, when I get back, I can hit that hard and start appearing all over," she said.
In the meantime, she has been recording demos and singing with other songwriters who need demos produced in order to pitch their music. "I've just been spending a lot of time writing, singing, marketing Downtown Nashville, having the honor to meet a lot of people that have made their way through the music, made their way to the top," he said.
She is in the middle of producing her second country album, writing a few of the songs and seeking out the rest, spending a lot of time in the studio. Keri Lea said she has been fortunate to get some song pitches from Greg Crowe, who wrote "Lonely and Gone" for Montgomery Gentry. "I'll be singing that (in Wisconsin) and that will probably be in my album," she said.
She gets back to Nashville every two months with her electrician husband who is with the 185th Iowa Air National Guard Refueling Wing and must return home for drills.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be able to be living my dream right now. He's our No. 1 income," she said. "He packed his stuff and came down here to support me."
She says she probably inherited her talent from her mother, who sings, and her fiddler-playing Grandpa Ryan, with whom she used to sit and sing a lot.
She suspects younger brother Garrett, 11, may have inherited some of the family gift. "I think my little brother likes music but I don't think he likes to tell anybody. I think he likes to sing, but he's too cool for that," she added.
Where does she expect to be in a couple of years?
"That's a hard question," she said, pausing for a moment. "I just want to be successful in everything that I do. I want to know where I want to be. I just want to make sure that I'm somewhere where I'll look back and I'll never regret anything and I'll know that I'll work my tail off."