'HEAR' AND NOW

Ashley Gearing never got to meet her real father, who died when she was 10 months old.

"Sometimes it's hard," she admits. "Sometimes it strikes me that I don't have a dad. I'm curious about what he was like.

"I hear that he liked to sing, too," says Ashley, now an amazingly poised 12, with a smile. "He had a great voice."

Ashley inherited that powerful voice and used it to deliver her first hit, "Can You Hear Me When I Talk to You?" She knew the first time she heard the song - which is addressed to a departed loved one - that she had to record it.

"It meant a lot to me," she says. "I wanted to dedicate it to my dad, and to other people who have lost someone special in their lives."

If "Can You Hear Me" propels Ashley to singing success, it will be the culmination of a dream the Springfield, Mass., native has had for practically all her young life.

"I got into singing lessons and had my first recital when I was about 6," recalls Ashley. "I loved to sing, so I wanted to pursue it. I realized I had a gift, and I wanted to spread it."

She got the chance to do that when a Nashville executive heard the 13-song CD she recorded in two days back home. Before long, she was becoming the youngest female singer to hit the Billboard charts, breaking Brenda Lee's 46-year-old record.

So while most kids her age are worrying about homework and fashion, Ashley is performing and finishing her first album, set for release later this year.

"It's kind of weird," she confesses. "I have people asking for my autograph, and I'm like, 'What?' Sometimes I miss just hanging out and not having to worry about keeping my voice fresh or getting sick. It's a crazy business, but I'm loving every minute of it!"

Not everything has changed - Ashley will head to junior high soon. When she tours, a tutor will go along and teachers will e-mail her assignments. "I definitely want to stay in school," she says. "That's really important to me."

And while Ashley is getting to the age where boys become a major concern, that problem has already been worked out as well.

"I just discussed that with my stepdad," giggles Ashley. "He says I can't date until I'm 30!"

Story by Chris Neal

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