The first notes out of the newest American Idol's mouth might have Minnesota roots. Emily Shackelton, 22, who grew up in Biwabik, Minn., is among the finalists for the show's songwriting competition. The winning singer sings the winning song. If it's "Dream Big," that means instant credibility for Shackelton.

If her name rings a bell, think back to 1996, when she took first place at age 10 for singing in "A Prairie Home Companion's" second annual "Talent From Towns Under 2,000" contest. We caught up with her, all grown up, in Nashville.

Q How did "Dream Big" come about?

A I was just having a really bad day. I was lonely and it was raining outside and I was really homesick, trying to remind myself why I'm here, why I sacrificed leaving my family. It started out as a slow song to write just for myself -- "Oh, yeah, it's OK, you can dream" -- coaxing myself to feel better. It came at such a pace that I really don't remember writing it. I really feel sometimes like the song was alive before I was.

Q Why Nashville?

A If you're a songwriter, there are pretty much three places -- New York City, Nashville, or L.A. -- that you have to choose from when you're starting out, although for folk singers, it's Boston. My music is pretty much top 40, but some of it is country. Mostly, it's music that's personal to me when I write it, so it's pretty universal to people who can relate to it.

Q Did you grow up with music?

A I did. My dad is just an amazing singer and guitar player. One of my earlier memories is listening to him sing "House at Pooh Corner," by Kenny Loggins, before I went to bed. I started writing when I was 8 or 9. I thought I'd be the next Carole King, I really did.

Q Any advice for a budding songwriter?

A It's like my song says, dream big. But don't do it unless it's the only thing that really pushes your buttons and keeps you going. It's not a glamorous life, waiting tables on the side. My husband, Caleb James, is in artist management but also works full time as a server at Morton's. I just worked a country music marathon for Smuckers peanut butter and jelly, promoting their products.

Q What song is stuck in your head now?

A "Hands on Me," by Vanessa Carlton.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185