ONLY THE BEGINNING

There's no end in sight for sensational newcomer Katrina Elam as she embarks on her first major tour, opening for superstar Keith Urban.

In less than 24 hours, Katrina Elam will be at Emens Auditorium in Muncie, Ind., waiting to hit the stage for the first time as Keith Urban's opening act.

And the anticipation is killing her.

"Oh my gosh, I'm so nervous!" exclaims the petite singer, who's just finished a rehearsal of her 30-minute set at Nashville's Municipal Auditorium. "I'm sick to my stomach. We leave tonight. I've never even been on a bus regularly before. It's really surreal. I don't think it's sunk in yet."

Katrina first met Keith when her producer asked him to play ganjo (a guitar/banjo hybrid) and electric guitar on her first single, "No End in Sight," from her self-titled debut album. "I thought he'd just come in and play for an hour," marvels Katrina. "But he stayed for several hours and perfected it and got it just right."

Keith must have thought Katrina had the right stuff, too. "Everybody around town knew he was looking for an opening act," explains Katrina. "Somebody gave him a DVD of me performing at a showcase here in Nashville. I thought, 'Oh, he's not going to pick me, there's just no way,' because I didn't think it was good enough. But he heard it and liked it, and asked me to be on the tour."

Both singers have been too busy to hang out since their musical pairing became official, but Katrina says she did have a chance to personally thank Keith. She adds that his career is one she's been learning from and watching closely.

"Keith has slowly but surely built his career, and now he's got something goin' that's so strong," she observes. "It makes you just love him even more. He's [also] kept it really rockin' but really country at the same time. I don't think a lot of people are able to do that."

Katrina's not doing too bad herself, with "No End in Sight" nearing the Top 30. And even though she's not yet a household name, she is already a star in her home state of Oklahoma, having sung there everywhere she could since she was 9 years old. On the day her album was released, she signed autographs at her hometown Wal-Mart. "There were so many people there and they were so sweet," she recalls. "I just sat there and cried. I couldn't believe they all came out to see me. We signed autographs for three hours. It was awesome!

"Nobody treats me any different," she adds of her fellow Okies. "I've known a lot of the people from my hometown since I was 5 years old. They don't think of me as 'Katrina the singer,' they think of me as 'Katrina the girl we grew up with and played softball with.' "

Katrina's growing fan base may soon see her as "Katrina the country star" - but this 20-year-old admits that she's more likely to be found at home than out partying. "I'm like a little grandma - I should knit!" she laughs. "I'm a big-time homebody, which is kind of weird for me to be in a career where I'm traveling all the time. But I love being at home, cooking, reading books and watching TV."

She also loves spending time with her boyfriend, who is not in the music business. She admits she didn't want to date anyone who's connected to the same line of work as she is.

"I'm much smarter than that!" she jokes. "It's great. It's like I have a totally separate life with him. I can talk about anything besides music."

But until the end of the year, music and Katrina's insanely busy schedule will most likely be the main topic of discussion - a fact that suits her just fine. "The key is finding somebody who totally understands what you do and loves you for it," she says, "and is secure in themselves enough to say, 'Go have fun and do this.' "

And she's more than ready to do it. "The bus pulls out at midnight tonight," she says excitedly, "but I made them promise to get me there at least an hour early so I can go in and decorate my bunk. I'm going to make it girly!"

- Wendy Newcomer

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