When you hear Catherine Britt speak, she sounds like what she is: a vivacious young woman born and raised in Australia. When you hear her sing, though, it's another story. When Catherine Britt sings, what comes out is the achingly pure heartbreak and joy of country music, shaped by a love for the sounds of its golden era that is all the more startling because it comes from one so young, and from so far away. By some miracle that transcends time and place, this Australian girl who's not yet out of her teens captures the timeless essence of country music and delivers it with an artistry and emotional depth so powerful that it has made believers out of everyone from Hank Williams' original steel guitar player to pop superstar Elton John.
"If you ask my brothers, they'll say that I basically never shut up," Catherine says with a hearty laugh, as she recalls singing around her childhood home in Newcastle, on Australia's eastern coast. "There's a song I wrote on my album called 'Too Far Gone,' that starts out with the lines, 'I know there's music playing/I can hear it in my head/I can see you lying on your bed.' That's my dad, and that's my image of home music blasting, and it was anything you can imagine. You'd walk in sometimes and there'd be African music playing; or the Beatles; or Hank Williams. I heard everything; I was exposed to a lot of great music growing up. But dad's favorite style of music was country, and so we heard a lot of country music around the house some Australian, but mainly American country.
"So I was singing all the time growing up, but it never really hit me until I was about nine. I had heard Dolly Parton when I was younger, but that's when it really hit me. It went into my head rather than through it, and I thought, oh, my gosh, that is amazing. And then I wanted to be her. And it kind of went from there I found Loretta Lynn, and then I found Hank Williams, and now he's my all-time favorite singer/songwriter."
With models like Parton, Lynn and Williams, it was inevitable that Catherine would begin writing her own songs - although, she says, she wasn't always sure what they were about. "It came naturally, I guess. I just started writing because everybody wrote. Hank wrote, and I wanted to do everything by what he did. So I began writing these songs about drinking, cheating, and all these things that country music is supposed to be about but I hadn't been through them. I don't even know where I got them from!"
Yet despite their problematic origins, her songs were convincing. So, too, was her singing - enough so that when she went to see a popular Australian country artist, she wound up on the fast track to stardom. Catherine wasn't Bill Chambers' only fan his Dead Ringer Band, which featured his star-in-the-making daughter Kasey, was a hot commodity on the Australian country music scene - but she was, it turned out, one of his most memorable.
"My parents took me to see him," she recalls. "I was scared to death, because I was such a huge fan, but I went up and asked him if I could make a request, and he said, 'of course.' So I asked him to sing 'T.B. Blues,' which was one of Jimmie Rodgers'. He looked at me in a really funny way and asked me how old I was. I told him I was eleven, and he said, 'How the hell do you know about Jimmie Rodgers?!'
Chambers brought her on stage to sing "T.B. Blues" with him, invited her to sing at a Merle Haggard tribute he was hosting in Sydney the following week, and proceeded to take the youngster under his wing. By the time she was fourteen, Catherine had made her first recording, a Chambers-produced EP called In The Pines. When "That Don't Bother Me," a song she'd co-written with Kasey, was released to radio, it soared to the Top 10 on the charts and record labels took notice, but thanks to her age, nothing came of it - at least, not at the time.
Two years later, with scores of gigs and thousands of tour miles under her belt, it was another story. After she and Bill returned to the studio for her first full length CD, Dusty Smiles And Heartbreak Cures (2001), the self-released project was quickly picked up and re-released by ABC Records the following year. Featuring half-dozen originals, together with covers of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Americana favorite Fred Eaglesmith and more, the album generated a string of singles that has kept Britt's voice on Australian radio to this day. But while it made Catherine plenty of fans in her native home, Dusty Smiles And Heartbreak Cures had an even greater impact on her career when it came to the attention of a British pop superstar, then in the middle of an Australian tour.
"To be really honest with you, I'm obsessed with music," Britt says with a disarming smile. "It's my whole life. I listen to music, I read biographies, I read country music history. Most of the time, I just don't pay much attention to the outside world. So I didn't even know that Elton John was touring in Australia. But I was sitting at home one day when I got a call from my record label, and they ask, 'have you been watching television lately?' I said no, and they said, 'well, Elton John's been mentioning you on all these TV shows.'
"I just fell out of my chair. It was totally out of nowhere. I couldn't comprehend it. It seems he had gone into a local CD shop somewhere in Australia, and the guy behind the desk recommended my album to him. So he bought it, and just fell in love with it, and he started mentioning me on the 'Today' show and in all these interviews: 'There's this new girl, Catherine Britt, I heard her album the other day and just flipped out.' It was freaky, but you know, he's an artist, and he's a music fan. I think people can tell a passionate singer, one who cares about the music, and I guess that's what he was attracted to.'"
At Sir Elton's invitation, Britt came to Sydney for the superstar's final show on the tour. The two met backstage and, Catherine remembers, "he asked me, 'have you got any contacts in America?' I told him I didn't 'I want to pay my dues and go there one day, but no, I don't know anybody' and he said, 'I want to give you a hand.' I thanked him, but I didn't think much of it, because he must be the busiest man in the world. The next day we had three labels calling, all saying that they wanted to sign! A week or so later, Joe Galante flew us to Nashville. I could have died happy right then and there! It seemed like all my dreams came true in five days! I got to come to Nashville, I sang on the Grand Ole Opry, and I signed with RCA Records."
With that, Catherine began traveling back and forth between Australia and Nashville, writing songs, listening to songs, meeting with potential producers, finding her way around the industry and soaking up the knowledge she'd need for a country music career in the United States. Despite her youth, she had some firm ideas about what she wanted, and she wasn't afraid to express them.
"I'm stubborn," she says with another laugh. "I remember the first time I walked into RCA Records, and Bill and I sat down with Joe Galante. We sang him some songs, and he said, 'That's all I need." And I said, "I'm not here to be anything that I'm not. I want to be a country singer, and that's my thing. I'm so glad to be here, and I feel so privileged, but it's not worth changing myself to get a record deal.' And the coolest thing was, Joe looked me in the eye, like he does, and he said, 'We will never, ever change you. We want to sign you because of what we heard, and that's your album. That's you.' And they never made me compromise anything. I'm really, really proud of that. We've worked together on everything, and my word has always been the last word."
Almost two years later, with a fistful of songs she'd co-written with fellow newcomer Brice Long, veterans Paul Overstreet and Jerry Salley, and the legendary Guy Clark, Catherine was ready to begin recording her first album for RCA. In keeping with her vow to be a country singer, Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, George Jones) was chosen as producer; in keeping with her determination to keep close to her personal roots, Bill Chambers was on hand to co-produce; and in keeping with her pure talent and captivating charm, Elton John, Kenny Chesney and Hank Williams' legendary steel player Don Helms all made the time to join Britt in the studio.
The result is an album that stands as one of the most exciting major label debuts not just of the year, but of the new century. Catherine Britt has accomplished the most essential job a country artist can hope to do: make music that is at once fresh and invigorating enough to speak to a new generation of fans, and yet naturally and firmly rooted in country tradition and the essential truths it has always brought to light. Such triumphs are rare historians may turn to such breakthroughs as Jackson's Here In The Real World, Ricky Skaggs' Highways And Heartaches and Emmylou Harris's Pieces Of The Sky as earlier instances but when they come along, they can set the pace for years to come. Years from now, those same historians may well include Catherine Britt's debut on the list.