Caroline Kole, formerly Suite Caroline, formerly Caroline Kudelko, swears "not much has changed" since she was an 11-year-old pop-country upstart living in Tampa Bay and gabbing to me about her dreams. She's 16 now, but really, that's about it.
Except, of course, for the fact that the girl with the new name is currently opening shows for Reba McEntire, the Queen of Country Music who also signed Kole to her Starstruck Records label. Oh, and Starstruck will soon release a five-track EP of new Kole tracks, including first single Money to Me, a warm, safely flirty love song ("Ain't it funny yeah we don't have any money / But we're rich as anybody can be") currently playing on country radio and available for purchase on iTunes.
And then there's the fact that Kole inked a sweet publishing deal with Sony/ATV, one of the reasons she's now living in Nashville, where, on her birthday, she recorded a music video for Money to Me. Kole will leave Music Row for a brief spell this week so she can head south for a homecoming gig at Club Detroit in St. Petersburg. "It'll be good to be home again," says the soon-to-be high school junior. "See all my family and all of my friends."
Kole is an exceptional guitar picker and has an innate way of writing and singing a hook. Her voice has taken on a throatier wisdom; she can live within a song now instead of merely reciting one well. She still has a sweet, innocent, young look; then again, so does Taylor Swift.
But rest assured, that "not much has changed" in Caroline's head is perhaps the top reason she continues to climb higher. She's remarkably level-headed, always has been. She doesn't need to be a superstar overnight. There's lots of talent in Nashville, but you have to be smart, too.
Part of her poise can be attributed to her family, starting with parents Paul and Marie Kudelko, good-humored folks who I've come to know a bit from covering Kole's ascent the last few years. It's also been extremely helpful to have Reba, of all people, watch your young back; McEntire's salt-of-the-earth reputation is no showbiz hokum, Kole says.
"She cannot be sweeter," says Kole. "Her crew has become part of my family. I'll talk to Ms. Reba before a show. And then to hear her compliment you from the stage, when you're sitting in the seats? It's so surreal. She told me that we're very similar in a lot of ways. It's nice to have someone like Ms. Reba on your side."
On Kole's website, McEntire says: "She blows me away every time she gets on stage. I love her as a person, an entertainer, a singer/songwriter. She is wonderful. You guys just keep your ears, eyes open for this young lady. To the top. I honestly believe that."
Even with the guidance of the red-headed icon, Kole (who changed her name from Suite Caroline to portray an older vibe and honor the "K" in Kudelko) is still trying to navigate the first steps of showbiz. When I ask her about the particulars of publishing and record contracts, she says, "I'm still trying to understand it, too." And although she surrounds herself primarily with family, she does meet the occasional person she treats "with skepticism." The music biz can be tough, especially in Nashville.
When I ask if it ever becomes too much, Kudelko says matter-of-factly: "Slow and steady is the only way to do things."
After all, you don't want life to change too much.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.