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. For 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 a 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.