LARGO — At just 16, Caroline Kole has sung before thousands alongside Reba McEntire. She has opened for such country stars as Blake Shelton and Alan Jackson.
Yet this concert at this venue would prove to be one of the most surreal of her career.
On Monday, the Clearwater native stepped into the middle of a gymnasium to perform for about 300 students plus 50 teachers and parents at her alma mater: St. Paul's, a private school in Largo.
"I always loved school and I loved my teachers and I loved my friends, so it's cool to come back and relive it all," she said, before quipping that: "It's kind of nerve-wracking, because the last time I was here I was going to class to take a test."
Born Caroline Kudelko, she attended St. Paul's through seventh grade before her family moved to Nashville, where she's a high school junior by day and a country singer-songwriter under McEntire's tutelage by night.
Kole says her career jump-started right here at St. Paul's.
Proudly donning a pin salvaged from her short-lived volleyball stint, Kole says it was the realization that she was horrible at sports that inspired the music lover at age 8 to pick up her first guitar and find talent while penning a song about her first crush.
She's gone from the school chorus to performing at local churches and festivals (initially under the stage name Suite Caroline) to opening for McEntire in Canada.
Kole's song Winter was featured in Winter: The Dolphin That Can, a documentary about the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's tailless dolphin. Her new music video for Money to Me has spent several weeks at No. 1 on County Music Television's Pure fan-voted countdown list.
"Time and time again, I pinch myself because I'm truly blessed and I know it," said Kole, who will perform at Tampa's Straz Center in November. "I'm here to show (the students) what hard work and determination can really lead you to."
During Monday's performance, Kole mixed in some of her originals among pop favorites by Taylor Swift and Adele. She walked the crowd, invited about a dozen students to the floor to sing with her and offered commentary between tunes.
"I really loved being here. … I kind of took that love of learning and books and turned it into a song," she said before seguing into Read It in a Book.
The kids clapped and stomped and swayed, their makeshift signs made of flimsy colored construction paper or lined paper attached to clipboards held high: "I (heart) U Caroline" and "Caroline Kole rocks!"
During a question-and-answer after the performance, fifth-grader Samia Hossain — who discovered Kole on YouTube four years ago — prefaced a query about Kole's siblings with a declaration of her fandom.
"I've always loved her so much," Samia, 11, later said, clutching an autographed photo. "I'm just excited. There's no words to explain."
Recalling Kole's second-grade performance of Let It Snow in the play Mr. Popper's Performing Penguins, teacher Betty Ann Southard said Kole was just as engaging then as she is now.
"She sang like a bird on the stage even back then. You could hear the talent in her sweet, innocent voice," Southard said. "Now, here she is 16 years old and a rising star."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.