Loretta Lynn taught Mann how to amplify her personality onstage.
Whitney Mann has had a busy couple of years. Although the country singer and songwriter has laid low for the first part of 2014, that's about to change. She recently started a vlog where she performs and discusses her songs, one video at a time. And on March 28, she'll record her first live album at the High Noon Saloon.
The live recording represents a reshuffling of the deck, career-wise. Mann's last three-song EP, This Little Light of Mine, came out in 2012, following the release of 2011's The Western Sky. Since then, she hasn't had as much time as she used to for music.
"Over the past two years, I've been focusing on going back to school," Mann says, referring to the MBA program she added to her plate. "Because of this, I can't devote a lot of time to going into the studio.... I have new songs, but not enough to justify a new album."
Her solution? Create a live recording to highlight her new songs and rearrangements of older material. The album will also showcase Mann's excellent band, which now includes singer-songwriter Corey Hart on guitar and vocals.
"Corey and I started playing together in preparation for Halloweekend at the High Noon a couple of years ago. We went as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings," Mann recalls. "It's really fun playing and singing with him. He is an incredible musician...and I think our voices meld well."
In addition to singing, Mann plays rhythm guitar in the band. She says Hart adds nuance to the songs as lead guitarist, particularly on "More Than a Man," which features an especially rich electric-guitar part.
Mann ended 2013 with a weeklong tour of Kentucky and Tennessee, which included a show at the Basement, one of Nashville's hottest venues. To get a sense of the caliber of the music booked there, in-demand producer, songwriter and performer Buddy Miller took the stage twice this month, bringing along such friends as Emmylou Harris, Derek Hoke and Lee Ann Womack.
But Mann is no stranger to high-profile gigs. Over the last few years, she's opened for such country legends as Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and the late George Jones. She says she was able to learn from these greats just by watching them. One lesson was how to be a better performer and storyteller.
"I think the biggest lesson I learned was not to have a fake stage persona, but rather be relaxed and simply show a slightly amplified version of my true personality," she says. "The audience can totally tell when a singer is faking it or phoning it in. They can feel it. Just being honest and open to the audience can make a big difference."
Mann says Loretta Lynn is a prime example of a performer who cranks up her natural personality onstage.
"She was an amplified, slightly feistier version of the nice, down-to-earth woman I met backstage. And the audience loved her no-nonsense approach to storytelling and delivery."
To begin 2014, Mann played a triumphant full-band show at the Wisconsin Folk Fest at the Majestic Theatre, along with Blessed Feathers, Corey Hart, J.E. Sunde and Field Report. With showstopping versions of "This Little Light of Mine" and "Been Thinkin' a Ways," her set served as a great preview for the live recording. It also showed how well her current bandmates play together. In addition to Hart, the group's lineup includes longtime players Adam Cargin on drums and Kyle Jacobson, Mann's husband, on bass.
Meanwhile, the vlog helps Mann give her audience more insight into her music. After all, she enjoys watching other artists tell the stories behind their songs.
"It's interesting to hear about someone else's process or inspiration," she says. "And I usually get asked after a show, 'What made you write that one song?' So I decided it would be cool to not only post songs online, but also to talk about why they were written and how."