Whitney Mann grew up the daughter of a grain farmer in tiny Camden, Mich., a town with a population of 500 lodged between the Saint Joseph River and the Indiana state line. In Camden, one school building houses all students, kindergarten through high school. The post office and the community park are the sum of all local landmarks.
Country music resonates there as the sound of rural life. "I grew up listening to Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton," says Mann, 25. "My mom played the piano at church."
It's no coincidence that Whitney Mann's songs are drenched in pedal steel, the kind that captures the dreamy loneliness of a faraway place.
Mann moved to Madison in 2007 and has been steadily gaining visibility as a country singer-songwriter in the club scene ever since. She performs with her band this Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Harmony Bar.
I met up with Mann and her boyfriend and bandmate Kyle Jacobson, 27, for an interview last week. Mann and Jacobson met in Rockford, Ill., a stop along the path that brought them to Madison. Mann left Camden to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There, a friend worked at a local Starbucks and invited her to perform in the coffeehouse. "Ever since I was in musical theater in high school, I've always liked performing," says Mann.
After graduating from college, Mann took a job as a photojournalist at the ABC television affiliate in Rockford. Jacobson was a coworker.
"I started asking around the station where the good places to see music were in town," says Mann. "Someone referred me to Kyle." Jacobson was a Rockford native who grew up liking skateboards and punk rock. He played in a local band in high school.
"After we met, we started getting together to play music and write songs," says Mann. "He was more into bands like Fugazi, but he basically adopted my style."
In 2007, Jacobson moved to Madison to take a job behind the cameras at WKOW-TV, Channel 27. After three months at a job in Colorado, Mann moved to Madison. "I missed him."
Last March, Mann released The Way Back Home, her first full-length album. The songs are true to her country roots, but also showcase a singer-songwriter side akin to Ingrid Michaelson and Jenny Lewis. You can hear this influence on the sparse acoustic track "Call the Cops."
Since September, Mann has hosted a monthly show at the Alchemy Café that she calls "By Request." On her MySpace page, she solicits song requests for submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. She uses these requests to assemble a unique playlist each month.
"The idea is that once someone makes the request, it gives them more of a reason to go out to the show," says Jacobson.
"I try to put my stamp on the songs and make it more than just another cover," says Mann. Her next "By Request" is Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 10 p.m.
Mann notes on her MySpace page that country and folk requests are preferred. There's a reason for that. Mann, says Jacobson, "is a country girl playing real country music."