The first time Kinslee Melhorn performed in front of a large audience, success was pretty much guaranteed.
After all, the 15-year-old singer said, a church congregation is too polite to heckle a sixth-grader.
"That had to be one of my best performances because no one knew that I could talk, much less sing," she said of her performance of the hymn "Were You There?"
"I knew they could clap and say I did a good job, but time and time again, they would ask when I would get back up there," she said. "I was thinking, 'They don't have to say all this.' "
That enthusiasm encouraged her to continue singing, and in the intervening years, her musical abilities have become something she identifies herself with, she said.
Kinslee has gone on to perform at a variety of venues near her home on the outskirts of Decatur, Tenn., including National MooFest and numerous performances at The Arts Center in Athens, Tenn.
For years, Kinslee was exclusively a cover artist singing music by country superstars, such as Sara Evans and her current vocal idols, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert.
As a child, Kinslee said, she would "goof off" writing songs, but it wasn't until she began studying guitar two years ago that she considered seriously pursuing songwriting.
"Whenever I sing, I play guitar because I feel naked without it," she said. "If you're just goofing off and don't know how to play an instrument, it's not really anything; it's just words.
"Once you put music behind it, everything starts becoming a song."
For her first serious attempt at composing, Kinslee penned "Let's Be More Than Friends," the story of a girl's unrequited affection for a boy in love with her best friend. Although she was proud of it, Kinslee said she never expected it to be more than a songwriting exercise.
Just before she wrote the piece, however, she had recorded a trio of cover songs at Legacy Studios in Athens, Tenn. On a lark, she returned there to record "Let's Be More Than Friends" as well.
During the production process, the song evolved into a bigger, more polished piece. Kinslee said hearing the evolution of the song into something of such high quality inspired her.
In the last year, she has written another half-dozen songs, and for the last several months, she has been recording her first CD at Jonan Studios, also in Athens. That album is tentatively set for release next year, according to her bio.
"Kinslee is talented far beyond her youth, not only as a singer but as a songwriter," said Jonan Sound Studio owner/engineer/musician Brent Womac in a statement included in the bio. "She writes from her heart about the life she knows. It is an honor to be working with her and a privilege to play a part in her musical journey."
The results of Womac's efforts have dramatically improved the songs, Kinslee said.
"Once it's all together, you can't believe that once that was just an acoustic guitar and your voice," she said.
One of her more recent pieces, "Summer Love," has been getting radio play in Nashville after she appeared on "The Bill Rainey Show," a program carried on "more than 3,000 stations worldwide," according to her bio.
She also has made appearances locally on WJSQ-FM 101.7's "Rising Stars" and WUSY-FM 100.7's "Backwoods Country."
At an awards show in Nashville in early September, Kinslee was named Songwriter of the Year for "Let's Be More Than Friends" and Most Promising Vocalist in the 13-17 age category of the Tennessee Country & Gospel Music Association.
For her part, Kinslee said she is enjoying the recent flurry of activity and has her eyes firmly set on following Rossville-based "American Idol" runner-up Lauren Alaina onto a stage at Riverbend next summer.
In the meantime, she said she intends to continue writing songs based on her own experiences that speak to truths everyone can relate to.
"I write about how it happened, about real scenarios," she said. "It's stuff that's right there in front of you.
"My message is straightforward: The songs I write are just about life."