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Almost Famous Almost 

On the road to stardom with Summer Hartbauer

click to enlarge SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton

Summer Hartbauer just got a call from CBS Television's Peter Cohen. She's been invited to a closed audition for Star Search in Denver on Thursday, and an A&R (artist and repertoire) guy in Los Angeles who's shopping her new CD to Sony Records just called to say that a top record exec at Elektra Records in Los Angeles wanted to know more about this young ingnue from Colorado Springs. And that's just this week.

In August, Summer won the Colgate Country Music Showdown (also won by Garth Brooks) in Glenwood Springs, and last month she was invited to perform in Nashville, where she met with publishers from Warner Chappell and EMI (oh, and Justin Timberlake got to meet her too).

By all accounts, she has everything it will take to make it big -- really big: a prodigious song-writing ability, obvious talent for rhythm guitar, wholesome good looks, a confident stage presence, a family dedicated to doing anything it takes to help her reach her dreams, and, of course, a one-word stage name: Summer.

In hot pursuit

Just 17 years old, Summer -- a senior at Liberty High School -- has been in hot pursuit of her dreams for just over a year now. Though she began playing music when she was a child, it wasn't until her family dragged her to an open mike in 2002 that a career in music, and the quest for fame, began taking hold.

"Honestly, my views are that I don't want to have to be discovered like this," says Summer from the passenger seat of her family's full-size Chevy Blazer SUV. Tammi Clancy, her slender and exuberant mother and manager, is at the wheel, navigating the torrent of traffic on I-25 North to Denver for her Star Search audition at the South Denver Hilton at 3 p.m. "I want to work my way up, because that's when the music is real."

Nevertheless, Tammi reminds Summer, it can't hurt to take advantage of every opportunity for exposure and that always elusive possibility that she may be discovered, or that her songs may touch one more heart.

A middle school teacher by day and Summer's manager the rest of the time, Tammi has devoted herself to Summer's career with the kind of zeal that frequently earns mothers like her the less-than-flattering moniker "stage mom." Aside from her teaching job, her three other children (all of whom, Tammi says, deal well with the attention Summer gets), the endless hours on the phone and Internet booking gigs, and playing publicist, Tammi goes to all of Summer's gigs, frequently driving home from Denver in the wee hours of the morning on school nights.

There's a palpable friction created by Summer's desire to be more independent (she talks about wanting to move out and get her own place and doesn't like "people telling me what to do"). In turn, Tammi wants to see her daughter safe, happy and successful. They both seem to be fairly content with their business relationship.

"It would be nice just to be a parent," says Tammi, "but if you're gonna do something, do it with your whole heart."

"I like Mom being my manager," Summer says. "If Mom can do this, that's cool with me."

Most of these fame-farming auditions are Tammi's idea. Last year, Summer agreed to try out for American Idol with the throngs of people who camped out for days just to be herded into tryout rooms like so many cattle brought to slaughter. Summer didn't even make it past the first round of cuts.

"It's not even about talent -- it's about entertainment ratings for their show," Summer says with a hint of precocious disillusion when her mom brings up the incident she'd just as soon forget. "They said it was basically about ratings," she adds incredulously. But while this initial brush with the fame game may have left an acrid taste in her mouth, it hasn't spoiled her dreams.

In fact, though she has only been playing bars and coffeehouses professionally for little over a year, Summer, like all young dreamers, is already playing sold-out stadiums in her mind.

"That's where I see myself going, so yeah, I think I have to be ready," she says. "You're known by everyone in the world. Having that level would be really cool. I just want to really share my music. And, of course, everyone wants to see themselves on MTV. Who, my age, doesn't want to be famous?"

click to enlarge Summer and her mom, Tammi Clancy look over her Star Search application. - NOEL BLACK
  • Noel Black
  • Summer and her mom, Tammi Clancy look over her Star Search application.

Dragged onstage

As we press on toward Summer's date with Star Search destiny, Tammi and Summer relate the well-oiled story of her fledgling musical career, which plays like the "early years" segment of an episode of VH-1 Behind the Music.

"We had to drag her to her first open mike," says Tammi of Summer's first gig at the Mill Hill Saloon on the city's West Side when she was 15. "She had been playing in the basement, writing songs and saying she was going to be famous."

Due to a scheduling mix-up, the open mike had been cancelled. But the manager said Summer could play a few songs anyway. There was no microphone, but "it actually made her better because she really had to project and belt it out over the bar," says Tammi, before Summer interjects: "And that's when I knew that performing and entertaining people was what I wanted to do."

After that, Summer began frequenting open mikes at coffeehouses and bars around town and landed her first paying gig at the Ancient Mariner in Manitou Springs in October of 2002. Summer had been working as a waitress at Sonic at the time, and the $100 payout was enough to convince her to ditch the roller skates and focus on music full time. Before long, she was playing three to four gigs a week at bars and coffeehouses in Colorado Springs and Denver and had saved enough money to cut a demo CD, titled Somebody's Dream.

Then came the contest wins and the calls from potential managers, A&R reps and Star Search producers.

"Things get bigger all the time," says Summer.

Dreaming of Jewel

"Jewel is the person I admire most because she does what I want to do (sing, play guitar, song write)," Summer has written on the lengthy Star Search application, referring to the diva who gained fame at 19 with her folk-pop debut album, Pieces of You, and the single "Who Will Save Your Soul" in 1995.

After a rustic childhood in rural Alaska, Jewel pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps, living and writing music in a van on the coast of Southern California where she was discovered at a coffeehouse by a scout for Warner Records. By the time she was 19, she had sold more than 10 million copies of her album.

A similar fate would be just fine with Summer. But with the record industry in turmoil over declining sales in a down economy and the rise of illegal file sharing, big labels just aren't spending the money they were in the mid-'90s when the economy was bubbling over. Jewel was a risk even then, and she had to tour constantly for over a year before her record sales really took off.

On top of that, female singer-songwriters with a message aren't exactly in vogue right now. Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and even Ani DiFranco all hit their strides in the mid- to late-'90s. The cultural backlash resulted in the likes of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears: hot and vapid.

Then there's the somewhat perplexing makeup of Summer's fan base. She has the sexy-but-innocent looks of a teen pop star and sings the type of lovelorn lyrics any teen could relate to, yet most of her fans are middle-aged, many of them men. Poke your head in at any of Summer's many local gigs and you're likely to see a cadre of gray-haired and/or balding guys snapping photos or just rapping their knuckles on the table top to any one of her 80 original songs.

"Sometimes I wish there were people my age who would return to shows," Summer says of the unconventional crowd. While she says that her friends at Liberty High School are supportive, most kids her age aren't looking for a quiet evening of crooning at a coffeehouse.

"Guys are so lucky because girl fans are faithful," she says. "I want to be known by people my age."

As we pull into the parking lot at the Hilton where the Star Search auditions are being held, she adds: "I'm real tired of this life playing bars and coffeehouses."

click to enlarge Summer sings one of her 80 original songs. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Summer sings one of her 80 original songs.

While Summer might prefer that her rise to fame read more like Jewel's hardscrabble self-reliance than Spears' nonstop media junket, "the star-maker machinery behind the popular song" (as Joni Mitchell put it) just might turn the odds in her favor and make the ride to the top a little bit quicker.

Searching for stars

The Star Search auditions, it turns out, aren't closed. And that means that well over 200 young people, their parents and many aspiring adults have bum-rushed the ballroom of the South Denver Hilton with their dreams on their sleeves. Cohen, the young CBS producer, shouts out numbers and lines the hopefuls up against a brown divider wall to be escorted off into other ballrooms for their tryouts.

So much for the "exclusive" invitation.

Still, Summer has an appointment, so, theoretically, she shouldn't have to wait in line for a cattle call.

The crowd is an eclectic bunch. Nearby, a young man in a black leather jacket looks every bit the sixth Backstreet boy. Three girls in matching brown marbled dresses with sequined straps look they got lost on their way to a Hee Haw reunion. And two young girls in yellow leotards flirt with themselves in front of a large mirror as they warm up their dance routine. Most in the line look like they're almost certainly going through an exercise in futility. But then again, Clay and Ruben won American Idol. So much for appearances.

Summer takes her application to the front table, checks in, gets her picture taken and takes a seat in one of the many rows of burgundy seats underneath a mammoth chandelier shedding a jaundiced light on the whole scene.

Before long, she and her mother spot another Pretty Young Thing on the folk-pop circuit who wore her best, fur-lapelled, red leather get-up for the auditions. Cordial smiles and greetings are exchanged despite body language that would suggest otherwise.

A little white boy in full Michael Jackson regalia -- black nylon jacket with gold epaulets, a tilted fedora and the one silver glove -- doesn't seem out of place in the least.

Half an hour goes by. Tammi wants Summer to go up and make sure they know she has an appointment. Summer wants Tammi to let her handle it.

Summer bumps into a friend from Colorado Springs -- Jason Coahran from the band TrickLife, who came to try out by himself. They've known each other since childhood and wile away another half hour catching up.

One can't help but marvel at the spectacle of this staging area for so many (almost certainly) doomed dreams. Clamors for glamour and glitz are de rigueur, but in such density it becomes a carnival of desperate individuality.

Some take a subtle approach. Summer, for example, wears a pair of dark gray parachute pants because someone once told her that she should never wear jeans on stage if she wants to set herself apart.

Then there are the other extremes: a young lady in a shredded dead animal outfit of unknown mammalian origin that looks very Cruella de Ville.

A boy with spiked hair, hipster glasses, a Strokes T-shirt and a shell necklace enters the ballroom with a guitar slung over his back, trying to play the indifferent, disaffected rock star. But it's hard to feign indifference when you and everyone else in the room all know you're there for the same reason they are.

Summer scans the room and picks out the Britney wanna-bes.

click to enlarge Endless Summer - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Endless Summer

"I just think it's so sad when kids are brought up to think image is everything," she says without irony.

Another half hour goes by. Tammi gets impatient, but tries to conceal it. Cell phones go off in a near-constant cacophony of canned melodies.

Nail biting, whispering, gossiping.

Producer Cohen reorganizes the seating arrangement by age group, lines up another cattle call and then informs everyone that they need a Star Search escort if they want to go to the bathroom, which is just down the hall.

An overweight teen-age boy with blond highlights in his curly brown hair wears a pair of Teva sandals, a Yoda T-shirt and a pair of baggy raver pants. He presses a Broadway song book to his chest and slouches next to his mother, who turns and scowls deeply at a duo of young black kids in do-rags making free use of the F word a few rows behind her.

Just when it seems like things can't get any weirder, a young woman pulls a handmade sword out of a bag, its handle wrapped in leather. She puts on a tattered white T-shirt. Last out of the bag comes a pair of camouflage pants. Her somewhat elderly looking mother, weeping, turns back to us and says, "She said, 'Thanks Mom, for letting me chase my dream.'"

Missing the dream

Finally, two hours after Summer's scheduled appointment, Cohen realizes that there may still be some people in the room who had appointments. He asks for a show of hands and a group of people including Summer raises their hands.

Manila envelopes with numbers are passed out among the group and then they're all instructed to line up against the brown divider wall.

Summer finds her place in line behind a well-starched man in a cowboy hat, a pouty girl with a blue feather boa and an older, pear-shaped woman in a gray business suit with really big hair.

After a few minutes, the group is led out into the hotel to another ballroom of undisclosed location and Tammi is left to wait. She wanders around looking for the room for a few minutes in hope of peeking through the crack for a glimpse of the audition, but all the ballrooms are guarded by Star Search personnel wearing headsets.

Half an hour later, Summer emerges from the audition room, there is a brief moment of giddy anticipation, but she quickly confirms that she will not be joining the short list that comprises Colorado Springs' Hall of Fame (see sidebar on page 20) ... just yet.

Back in the element

Two weeks later, the wave of momentum that seemed just about to crest has subsided. There's still no word from the A&R rep in Los Angeles and the Star Search audition turned out to be just another blip on the long road of hard work and perseverance that Summer is still confident will lead to her fame and success.

For now, it's back on the road for an acoustic showcase tonight at the Soiled Dove in Denver. Summer is headlining the gig that will feature four other singer-songwriters her age, and she seems more relaxed to be in her "work my way up" element.

While she seemed to be chomping at the bit to play bigger venues, get her own place and start her own life just two weeks ago, she has since decided she'll live at home for a while longer, take a part-time job (after graduating high school a semester early) and continue to focus on her music.

For all that's happened, Summer, Tammi and Summer's stepfather, Dave, seem remarkably quiet and composed until, in mid-interview, Summer has a terrifying realization:

"Oh crap, I forgot to tape The O.C. ," she blurts, referring to Fox Television's latest prime-time teen soap opera as she whips out her cell phone to see if someone can put a tape in the VCR to record her favorite show.

After all, she's still only 17.

  • On the road to stardom with Summer Hartbauer

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