For more photos, click gallery, above.
Willie Nelson was leaning against the wall of his tour bus, watching CNN, when Whitney Mann stepped inside to meet him.
"It was like meeting Donald Duck, someone who's not supposed to be real," says the Madison country music artist. "I told him, 'I got the crowd warmed up for you.' Then I said, 'Good luck out there - well, you're a legend, you don't really need luck.' It was really awkward."
Mann opened for Nelson in La Crosse in March 2010. Since then, she's made major appearances opening for two more country legends, George Jones and Loretta Lynn. They're credentials that suggest Mann is on the verge of becoming a star herself.
But in 2011, when and how a country music artist becomes a star is as hazy as the sky over the Great Smoky Mountains. The point isn't lost on Mann, who understands that for today's young musician, yesterday's success is yesterday's success.
"We were in La Crosse again recently," she says. "A few of the people who came to the Willie Nelson show were there, but at the same time it was a coffee shop. It's not like hundreds of people are coming back."
For all but the few country pop stars manufactured in Nashville - or in Hollywood, where they're distributed on American Idol - there are no more record deals to sign, no royalties that will endure when the crowds go home. If Loretta Lynn had been born 50 years later, she wouldn't be driving across the South to radio stations to deliver her record, the way she did in 1960.
None of that bothers Mann, whose sublime disinterest in her commercial appeal sustains her musical energy. "I just like to write songs for my friends and play them," says Mann. "I'd be doing that whether I was opening for Willie Nelson or not." She leaves the business side of her musical endeavors to her fiancé.
In her hometown of Camden, Mich., Mann, 27, grew up not being noticed. She didn't talk much. Reflecting on Mann's reserved youthful demeanor, Camden music teacher Linda Shiffler says Whitney "majored in quiet" during high school.
Songs became her outlet for feelings. "When you listen to Whitney's music, you are indeed hearing her story," says Shiffler. "She is telling you things and feelings that she would never articulate in a conversation."
Whitney Mann is a Midwest farm girl who found her identity singing, and she might become the biggest country music star Madison's ever had.
Michigan Highway 49 is Main Street through Camden, running north to Reading Township and south to the Ohio state line.
Camden's Wikipedia page starts out by telling its location and population. Then it says this about the city: "It is the home of country music singer Whitney Mann, who had success opening for Willie Nelson and George Jones."
The unemployment rate in Camden is 17%. Its population decreased from 550 in 2000 to 513 in 2010. "Most people farmed," says Mann. "My dad farmed corn and beans."
At the Camden school, the meager K-12 student body fit inside one building. "The schools were not very good," recalls Mann. "Growing up I wanted to get out of there. When I was 4 I'd pack a bag and pretend I was going somewhere. I remember standing at the window and asking my mom if we were ever going to move. She said no, and I remember being really disappointed."
Shiffler taught Mann to play piano and remembers her for her fast-paced keyboard work and her perpetual silence. "Whitney was one of the most bashful children I ever knew," says Shiffler. "It took three full years to hear more than a yes or no or see a shrug of the shoulders. Full sentences or a conversation were a long time coming. But that was natural because she doesn't come from a talkative family."
"A lot of the time I spent being creative as a kid was also time I spent alone," says Mann. At home, she locked herself in the bathroom, stared into the mirror and sang. For hours.
The solitude had partly to do with growing up in farm country. "One spring I wrote a script and made my friends all act it out," she recalls. Her friends' involvement took effort. On the farm, school pals aren't a driveway away. "We had a lot of dirt bikes and four-wheelers," says Mann. "You'd have to hop on one of those and ride for a while to go see one of your friends."
Mann attributes liking the music she likes to the environment in which she grew up. In Camden, most people listen to country music. Saturdays, some Camden residents make the 18-mile drive northeast to Hillsdale, where touring musicians play country, bluegrass and gospel music in a barn that's been converted into a music venue. People from all over rural Hillsdale County come to see it.
Camden's solitude also meant this: Sounds were infrequent. For Mann, the sounds she heard, even those she didn't hear, burned themselves into her memory. "I never heard an airplane fly over," says Mann. "I remember hearing birds, coyotes, tractors, trucks and Amish horse buggies." Mann's music reflects the sonic minimalism of her youth. The instrumentation is sparse, letting her voice lead the way. It's a voice that makes her songs deeply emotional.
"It's usually some outside inspiration that gets me writing, like when my grandfather died," says Mann. She wrote "Miss You on the Farm" to commemorate his death. The song's military marching beat evokes the memory of his Army service. With words not clearly articulated, the song's lyrical feel is impressionistic.
Says Mann, "I'm not the type of writer who can sit down and write a song just because it's time to write a song."
In 2002 Mann found a way to discover the world beyond Camden. She headed east across the Wolverine State to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
College changed Mann musically. In Camden, she sang and played piano and guitar in private. In Ann Arbor, a friend who worked at a Starbucks near campus persuaded Mann to perform live shows for coffeehouse patrons. "After she invited me," recalls Mann, "I said, 'I'm going to have to write some songs.'"
Photography became an interest, too. When Mann graduated and left Ann Arbor, she took a job in Rockford, Ill., as a photojournalist for the local ABC television affiliate.
She began dating a coworker, Kyle Jacobson, who grew up in Rockford and helped Mann discover the city's live music venues. When Jacobson was offered a job at WKOW-TV in Madison, the couple relocated to Wisconsin.
After hours, she kept playing shows, especially at the Alchemy Café on Madison's east side. She solicited song requests on her MySpace page and tailored her sets accordingly. In 2009, she released her album debut, The Way Back Home.
The irony was rich. After years spent dreaming of a life beyond Camden, Mann's songwriting suddenly embraced her rural past. Then it swept her into concert halls with country music's biggest stars.
Really big shows
If Loretta Lynn got her break delivering records to radio DJs, for Whitney Mann, it was an email message and a link to her MySpace page.
The message was sent by Jacobson. "Willie Nelson was playing a lot of smaller towns in the Upper Midwest," he says. "So I researched who was promoting these events."
It was Don Kronberg of the Palatine, Ill.-based Nite Lite productions. "I needed someone who could perform an acoustic set without stepping on the headliner's toes," says Kronberg. "I gave Whitney a slot on a Willie Nelson date up in La Crosse." She sold a ton of CDs that night, he recalls.
"I know I can count on Whitney to deliver a strong set the audience will enjoy," he says. "Watching her get a standing ovation earlier this year at a sold-out Loretta Lynn show in Des Moines enforced my belief that Whitney has star potential. Her no-fuss mentality and easygoing Midwestern charm allow her to immediately connect with just about any audience."
Her slot with George Jones came in November 2010. Mann remembers her meeting with Jones as less engaging than her moment with Nelson. "He's the same age as Willie Nelson, but not as lively, I guess," says Mann. "He said, 'Ah, if I had known you were going to open for me, I would have come and listened.'"
When Mann met Loretta Lynn earlier this year, the chemistry between the two women was easy and natural. "I got to sit right next to her backstage, and we had a conversation," recalls Mann. "We talked for about 10 minutes. I told her I had read her autobiography. She was like, 'You're a pretty little thing. Isn't she a pretty little thing?'"
Mann says Lynn is her musical hero. "She pursued her dream, even though she had four kids at home," says Mann. "She was a pioneer for female songwriters, which is really admirable."
Unlike the country legends of yesterday, Mann isn't looking to the record industry to make her famous overnight. For most successful musicians, touring has eclipsed CD sales as a way to make money. Mann's CDs are distributed on an Iowa City independent label, Mud Dauber, which operates as a collective of musicians.
Mann says her major concerts have taught her something about herself. "I actually get more nervous in front of 20 people than I do in front of 600," she says.
What is the measure of a musician's success?
The answer is harder now than it used to be.
"You try to count the number of fans you have on Facebook," says Jacobson. "But at the same time, there are bands that I like, and I am not their Facebook fan. So I try to estimate with Whitney how many people are out there that are in the same boat."
Mann accepts the futility of it all. "Even if you have a thousand fans on Facebook and they are all in one city, it doesn't mean that any of them are going to show up when you play," she says. "We compete against a lot of things for people's attention."
For now, she's happy with her day job and is hard-pressed to identify a goal for her future as a musician. "If an opportunity came up to go on tour across the country with someone like Willie Nelson, obviously I'd weigh it," she says. "But it's not really a goal."
Mann, like most aspiring musicians, maintains multiple online platforms in her quest to connect with fans. In addition to her own website, she's on Facebook, MySpace, Bandcamp, YouTube and Sonicbids. Her digital audio streams reveal beautifully simple country music, the kind people made long before the Web.
It's a tradition Mann is helping to sustain. "When I hear music, my thing is that I really like song melodies that are stark," says Mann. "I like space without a lot of processing."
"Been Thinkin' a Ways" is not the kind of country-pop you'll hear on stations like Q106. The simple acoustic guitar strumming and slow, steady verses give the song a vintage feel. Mann's twangy voice is down-home. The song's airy structure lends a more sophisticated Americana vibe.
When I interviewed Mann and Jacobson for this story, we sat outside the Alchemy Café on Winnebago Street, taking in the sights and sounds of the city. "This one block is just about the size of Camden's whole downtown," Mann said.
She's comfortable in the city now, and she doesn't want to leave. "I like going back to Camden, but I don't like staying there too long."
Camden, it seems, has become something other than a place for Mann. It's become an idea.
Last month, Mann released her second album, The Western Sky. One of its most irresistible tracks is called "Home." It begins with a warm, energetic fiddle and a country beat. It peaks with the chorus and its sweet harmonies.
The lyrics speak to Mann's idea of an idyllic place. "At night 'round the table we will sit," she sings. "And on ice tea we'll sip, as we talk about our days."
Camden and the music of Whitney Mann are about finding a place to belong, even if that place is only in your mind. "Oh, it will be all right," sings Mann in the chorus of "Home." "Oh, it will be just fine. Nothing feels as right as home."
Someone once said you can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl. For Whitney Mann, Madison is where she lives now. But the oppressive, nurturing solitude of Camden, Mich., will always be her place to belong.
This article has been edited. Mann began attending the University of Michigan in 2002, and the name of her music label is Mud Dauber.