September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s minutes before she takes the stage with her dulcimer at The Starry Plough, a club in Berkeley, Calif., and Mare Winningham isn’t nervous. But calm hasn’t come easy for the actress-singer who nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing a famous folkie in last year’s Georgia. ”I get sensitive when I sing,” she admits.

During the two decades that Winningham, 37, has been acting in films like St. Elmo’s Fire and Wyatt Earp, and TV movies like Amber Waves (for which she won an Emmy at age 21), she’s quietly pursued a career as a singer-songwriter. Winningham originally believed music was her calling: She studied piano and guitar while growing up in L.A. but pursued acting because, she says, ”I had a real strong feeling about my own destiny.” (So did the agent she landed in her last year of college.)

But the music bug kept biting. At age 26, she started a band with a friend, and in 1991, with her family of five children (and husband Bill Maple) settled, Winningham recorded her first album, What Might Be. Folksinger John Wesley Harding was so impressed when he heard it, he asked her to open for him. ”She has a beautiful and rich voice,” Harding says, ”with a nice catch in it that I like.” Her next album will be released later this year.

When it comes to writing songs, she says, ”I’m generally in a state of transition or turmoil. That’s why I’ve always loved hotel rooms, car rides, plane flights…. There’s that acuity that comes when one is displaced.”

And her dream gig? ”To play in the kind of large hall that Georgia did in the movie. Only the audience was paid to applaud then. I’d love to earn that kind of respect on my own.”

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