Sixth-grader is making a name for herself as singer

Close your eyes, and the voice echoing from the speakers about longing and pain could easily belong to a wise and weary 30-year-old who's finally found an outlet in song.

But there, center stage, barefoot, long dark hair blowing in the breeze, is Almira Fawn Southworth, 11. The bass she's playing extends easily a foot above her head.

"I don't know how I do it. I guess those kinds of feelings are universal," said the singer/songwriter of her ability to convincingly pull off a heartbreak song when she just recently developed her first crush.

"We basically sit across the room from each other as far as possible and don't talk to each other because we both know we like each other," said the Lexington girl who goes by "Almira Fawn" explaining how her pre-teen love life is working out.

In between recent sets at Lexington's Regatta Seafood, featuring songs by Sheryl Crow and KT Tunstall, she is quickly distracted by feeding the ducks.

Still, the sixth-grader has big plans. She has for several years been a fixture at the Lexington Farmers Market, where she said a good day of tips could yield $200. But she is now branching out as the featured entertainment at local watering holes, playing three or four nights a week at adult venues around town.

She recently signed with an agent and will appear July 10-12 at Louisville's Forecastle Festival where the headliners are the likes of Widespread Panic and the Black Crowes.

She's also booking her summer tour, her third. She and her family are waiting to hear whether Almira will be a part of next season's America's Got Talent. She auditioned in Miami but has yet to hear back.

"In five years," she said, "I just want to be traveling around the country, playing my music, writing songs."

"It's better to write your own stuff," she said, adding that she hopes the songs she is writing today will survive through a next generation. When old songs — you know, like from the '80s — still stand, you know they are good, she said.

And, according to her plans, she hopes to accomplish this and more all before she's old enough for a driver's license.

Her first summer tour was a few years ago when she and her father, Don, loaded up the car and took his daughter to audition at clubs in beach towns. Club owners would usually let her perform, he said. This year's tour will be more organized.

"We are just kind of learning as we go," said Don Southworth, who is a truck driver by day and chief roadie by night. His wife, Umi Southworth, is an accountant. "Two years ago, I didn't know that songs were in a key."

Don Southworth said it's hard to know the right thing to do when you have a child who obviously has a great gift. You want to push, but not too hard. It can become overwhelming, all-consuming. But he and his wife try to strike a balance. Playing at bars several nights a week might not be an ideal environment for an 11-year-old, he said. But he and his daughter have talked about it, he said, and he doesn't think she will be affected negatively.

"She's such a goody-goody," he said, it's not in her nature to rebel or act out.

Although Almira is talking about how she will be home schooled next year to allow more time for making music since weeknight gigs can sometimes run until 10 p.m., her dad said the discussion is ongoing.

"I do everything I can to try and keep her grounded," he said. School, where she gets straight A's despite her frequent absences, is part of that. Soccer and hanging out with her little sister, Aleah, 9, is also a good outlet.

And at home she has an array of animals, including a bat named "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." She's happy to share her snake wrangling skills with anyone who will listen.

The origins of Almira's musical mastery are a mystery, Don Southworth said. The family signed her up for guitar lessons when she was 6 as a way of pushing her out of "the shy box," as she calls it.

So painfully shy was the young Almira that her teachers complained that she wouldn't respond in class. The guitar quickly became her voice, and she soon branched out to other instruments, including the bass, mandolin, harmonica and, for one song, an interesting twist on a Slinky.

She's made an impression on Becky Weatherford of Lexington, who has seen her twice. "I love her," said Weatherford, who used her cell phone to capture snaps of Almira on stage at Regatta. "I play the guitar myself. She makes me want to pick it up again."

Although she frequently performs solo and makes attempts to banter with the crowd, Almira swears she's still as shy as ever.

But somehow, she said, she fights the butterflies she feels before each performance and finds a way to make music.

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