- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

Sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of her parents basement, college freshman Katy Benko does not seem to match the mature voice behind what may become Virginias new state anthem.
Looks can be deceiving, though. Her rendition of songwriter Robert Clouses "Oh, Virginia" has made it through an initial crop of 339 entries to become one of eight finalists in the race for a new state song to replace "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia."
This is good news for the 18-year-old Herndon resident, who two years into her country music career already is sharing the stage with the likes of stars such as Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell and Brooks & Dunn.
Last week, the George Mason University student was busy preparing for a benefit show at her alma mater, Oakton High School. Shes hoping to record her first album in the near future but says she has been happy to promote what she believes should be the new state song.
Miss Benko doesnt add songs to her repertoire lightly. Her management in Nashville, Tenn. GC Management and the William Morris Agency sends her 20 songs at a time, out of which shell pick maybe one or two to sing.
For her, singing "Oh, Virginia" is a possible lifetime commitment.
"I have to think, 'Would I be able to sing this song every day for the rest of my life? " she says.
"Nobody can get Katy to sing a song she doesnt want to do," says her father and local manager, John Benko. He has been co-managing her with Marty Gamblin, out of Nashville, since he sold his bowling alley business in 1997.
Mr. Clouse, 58, from Lake Monticello outside Charlottesville, first crossed paths with Miss Benko when she sang at the Celebrate Fairfax festival last summer.
He mailed her a copy of the song, which she took to instantly.
"I thought it was great," Miss Benko says of her initial reaction. "I could say Im proud to have this song as my state song."
Objections over the old state song have been raised since the 1970s, when critics pointed out that its lyrics seemed to romanticize slavery. The song became the "state song emeritus" in 1997, and responsibility for finding a new one was given to the Virginia Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
"I was delighted to see it get this far," Mr. Clouse says of the song he penned in 1998.
"Im on the road quite a bit, so I get to see quite a bit of Virginia," he says. "There are so many things that are so awe-inspiring. You really get a sense of the history."
Mr. Clouse has made a few other recordings of the song, but Miss Benkos growing celebrity has helped push "Oh, Virginia" along.
Miss Benko has always been a performer, according to her father, but it wasnt until she was 13 that she decided to make music her life. A life of talent shows, vocal competitions, musicals and open mike nights followed, with her becoming the World Champion Teen Vocalist at age 15.
The contacts she and her father made helped her form the Katy Benko Band, made up mostly of older professionals with years in the music business. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Jim Horton is the band leader and works with her on composing and arranging new material.
State song organizers have hoped that if they make the tunes available via the Internet the most popular ones will stand out, making the choice of picking a finalist that much easier.
No date has been set for picking the new anthem, but it likely will come before January 2002, according to information on the committees Web site.
Miss Benko and her father thought a few of the other songs were good, but they agreed that none matched the emotion of Mr. Clouses song.
"I put it together in fragments here and there," Mr. Clouse says. Inspired by his travels through the state selling homemade jewelry his wife, Jeannie, makes Mr. Clouse wrote the words and music to "Oh, Virginia."
The song was designed to be used for formal occasions, yet simple enough for schoolchildren to sing, Mr. Clouse says.
The chorus runs: "Oh, Virginia, Ill always long to be/Amid the endless beauty in a land of majesty/Oh, Virginia, a wonder to behold/Virginia is for lovers young and old."
Mr. Clouse started composing songs while studying music at Indiana State University at Terre Haute. After graduating, he taught music in public schools and sold musical instruments while continuing to compose songs.
"The first time I saw her, I was absolutely knocked out to see a girl that age with that stage presence and the vocal techniques she possessed," Mr. Clouse says of Miss Benko.
"Im absolutely delighted with what shes done and how shes gotten involved," he adds.
As for Miss Benko, her growing audience has helped her move out of bars and into club, fair and stadium shows. A three-song demonstration tape has been circulating around Nashville, but the singer says shes in no rush.
"I walk my own path; I make my own footprints," Miss Benko says.
Katy Benko has always been a performer, according to her father, but it wasnt until she was 13 that she decided to make music her life.

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