Lauren Alaina returns to her roots at Riverbend

photo Lauren Alaina will close out the Riverbend Festival tonight.

Lauren Alaina was 9 years old when she sang at Riverbend the first time, winning the children's talent contest sponsored by the Times Free Press.

"I wore a Pocahontas outfit and sang 'Just Around the Riverbend,'" Alaina recalled of her festival debut. "I also sang 'Part of Your World' in a hula girl outfit that same night."

The 17-year-old returns to the riverfront tonight, but this time the rising country star is headlining the Coca-Cola Stage.

Instead of covering Disney classics, the "American Idol" runner-up will entertain the hometown crowd with her own hits, such as "Georgia Peaches" and "Like My Mother Does" from her debut album, "Wildflower."

"It's always been her childhood dream to play the Coke Stage," said Joe "Dixie" Fuller, Friends of the Festival talent and production coordinator. "We first found her in the Times Free Press children's talent contest. She was a standout. Then we brought her back the next year to play the Bud Stage.

"To bring our own little star back home as headliner on the Coke Stage just brings it full circle," said Fuller.

Although she spent last summer opening for Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party tour, and this summer she's opening for Sugarland, Alaina said nothing beats singing for the hometown crowd.

"When you make goals for yourself and you actually get to live them out, it makes you feel really good," said Alaina.

Alaina takes the festival stage at 9:30 p.m. Before singing, she'll make a 4 p.m. appearance at the St. Jude Dream Home.

Alaina will greet fans for an hour at the house, 8151 Propeller Drive, in Ooltewah. During the open house, visitors may purchase a $100 ticket for a chance to win the three-bedroom home in Georgetown Bay subdivision.

This week, Alaina announced her next single off "Wildflower" will be "18 Inches." The song was written by former Hixson resident Kelley Lovelace, Ashley Gorley and Carrie Underwood -- Alaina's own idol.

It's about a young couple who elope, live on love because they don't have money, and then become parents to an 18-inch bundle of joy.

"I am super pumped about this single," Lovelace said in a phone interview. "I love this song. It's one of my favorites. It's also great Lauren recorded it because of the local ties.

"I do a lot of ministry work, and they always say the greatest distance in the world is the 18 inches between your head and our heart. We talked about that concept and applied it to relationships. There's a lot of blind faith and love in relationships with others and with God."

Lovelace said he ran into Underwood at last week's CMA Music Fest, and she gave him a big high-five.

"She said, 'We got the single! Lauren Alaina!' I think this is her first single as a writer. We're all really excited," said Lovelace.

Alaina's Twitter followers have been talking up tonight's appearance. Fans from Miami to Michigan are claiming they'll be in town to hear her.

One thing's for sure: Alaina's show will go out with a bang. Riverbend's annual fireworks finale will light up the waterfront following her closing number.

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