This fall, Brittany Opperman traveled 700 miles from Gettysburg to Nashville just to perform one song at the Bluebird Cafe.
The legendary venue hosts an open mic every Monday that’s so popular people wait outside for hours just to get a seat. “You had to park across the street, and you couldn’t cross over until 4:29 to get in line at 4:30,” Opperman recalls. “And then you waited in front of the building until 5:30.”
When she finally reached the front of her line (there were a total of four lines), Opperman put her name on a piece of paper, dropped it in a hat and waited to find out when – or if – she would perform that night. Happily, she landed in the number 18 slot.
“Being there in that place was really intimidating,” she says. “But it’s still like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m playing at the Bluebird. I’m in Nashville. Everybody wants to do this.’”
It may seem like a long way to go for an open mic, but the Bluebird is a world-renowned stage, and Opperman has a natural chemistry with the city of Nashville. She had just finished her freshman year at Malone University in Ohio when she first visited the Music City. Her first year of college had gone well in some ways – she made the dean’s list and she had lots of friends – but something was missing. “I was calling my dad almost every day, crying,” she says. “I felt really uneasy about everything, and I couldn’t figure out what exactly I wanted to do.”
Her father, Jamie, who now works as her manager, took her to visit Nashville in the summer of 2009. “He took me there, thinking, ‘They’ll just tell her to go back to school,’” Opperman laughs. But no one told her to go back. Instead, she got a lot of encouragement and made valuable contacts. The following week, she decided to take time off from school to pursue music.
Fast-forward a few years, and the 23-year-old singer-songwriter is passionate, focused and extremely self-aware as she discusses her life and art. Whereas many of her friends got married young and are already starting families, Opperman is performing and writing, sharing stages with country giants like Craig Campbell and John Michael Montgomery and harboring dreams of moving to Nashville someday.
“When I was younger, that was the main thing I thought about being a grown-up – getting married and having kids and being a mom,” Opperman says. “I’ve had to learn to let go of these milestones – these things in life you think you’re supposed to do, and in what order.”
And yet, Opperman is a family girl through and through. Her family plays a major role in her music: her dad is her manager, her mom takes photos, her stepmom helps with scheduling and her little brother can often be found lugging gear before and after her shows.
Outside of her family, Opperman has found support in a talented cast of area musicians. She often performs solo, but she’s also worked in several gratifying collaborations in the last few years. Her current backing band consists of Jake Godman on drums, John Mark Ramsey on lead guitar and Matt Hinton on bass.
This winter, Opperman plans to record a full-length album at Racetrack Sound Studios in Gettysburg. Her self-titled first EP was recorded there in 2012. The six-song album features four original compositions ranging from up-tempo country-pop tunes to slow country ballads, plus a sweetly-sung cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” and a bad-ass rendition of “You’re No Good” – the Clint Ballard Jr. song that Linda Ronstadt turned into a No. 1 hit in 1975.
When it comes to promoting her music, Opperman has found an ally in Gettysburg’s local radio station, Great Country 107.7. After hosting her for a live in-studio performance, the station offered her a spot on the 2012 York Fair’s radio stage, opening for Casey James. This year, they followed up with an even more prestigious offer: sharing a stage with Brett Eldridge, Craig Campbell and Montgomery Gentry at the Battle of Gettysburg’s 150th anniversary concert.
Opperman recounts how honored she was when she realized Campbell had snuck into the audience incognito to watch her set. Afterwards, he was backstage waiting to congratulate her on her performance. “It’s funny, the people you get to talk to, even in passing,” Opperman says. “They might not open the door for you, but they give you those little road signs – like, ‘You’re at the right place. Just keep going.’”
Despite the country flavor of her music, Opperman admits she didn’t always love country music. She grew up on her dad’s stash of country singers like Vince Gill, Colin Ray and Trisha Yearwood. But then, like so many other pre-teen girls, she converted to mainstream pop music and R&B. “I would tell people I hated country music, that it’s too depressing,” she laughs. “I don’t know where I got that. It’s really become so much more than that.”
It was Kenny Chesney who finally won back her heart. She heard his song, “There Goes My Life,” on the radio one day and suddenly remembered everything she loved about country music. “From there, I just started listening,” she says.
When people tell Opperman she’s the next Taylor Swift – which happens a lot – she thinks they’re missing the point. Although she speaks very highly of Swift, she says the comparison has more to do with them both being pretty young women who sing and play guitar than with what they do on stage. Opperman and Swift are only two months apart in age, and Opperman admits she’s been inspired by Swift’s career.
“There are so many times when I hear her songs and I’m like, ‘That’s exactly what I’m going through.’ I feel like we’re living the same life,” she says. “But I don’t want to be her. I want to be my own person.”
If you sit and talk with Opperman for just a few minutes – or, better yet, watch her perform – it’s easy to see that’s one goal she’s already accomplished.
Brittany Opperman is performing at the Emmaus Road Cafe on May 3.