The School Counsellor’s Daughter

Golden Guitar winner, Catherine Britt, and her father, Steve, were rivals when I first viewed them together in 2008. RocKwiz was the arena.

The SBS program pits two teams of three against each other, competing for supremacy in their knowledge of the popular music scene.

Catherine was the celebrity centrepiece of one team. Max Merritt headed the other. The remaining four spots were allotted to audience members with a flair for rock history. Steve was one. The show’s producers set Catherine and her father on opposing sides.

Catherine anticipated a trouncing. She knew her father’s encyclopaedic knowledge of all things musical. Steve’s passion helped launch Catherine on her trajectory to star status in the country music world. But Steve revelled in all areas of popular music.

By contrast, they were relaxing side by side when I interviewed them recently. Not rivalry, but a comfortable and affectionate father and daughter relationship was before me.

This was at the house Catherine shares with husband, James, in a suburb of her home town, Newcastle.

I know Steve through his important contributions to adult faith formation in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. His skills as psychologist are especially valued in programs of the Tenison Woods Education Centre. His day job is school counsellor.

What part did Steve play in Catherine’s rise to prominence as singer/songwriter in the Australian and American country music scenes?

Importantly, she didn’t get her voice from Steve. Nor from Anne, her mother, or elsewhere in the family. Steve seems perplexed, but proud. “How did Catherine get to have one of the best voices in Australian country music? It came out of nowhere.”

In childhood Catherine was exposed to much and varied music. She tried several musical instruments, until parental wisdom recognised that the perfectly pitched instrument she possessed was the one to foster.

Catherine was the designated singer in primary school days at St Joseph’s, Charlestown. She was called upon to render “Happy Birthday” regularly − a far cry from her 2012 recording “Charlestown Road” which laments her long-gone family home.

Nowadays Catherine solos in grander settings like Tamworth’s Australian Country Music Festival where this year she collected a fourth Golden Guitar – her third as Female Artist of the Year.

Why country when Steve had introduced various musical styles?

On a family holiday, aged 9 or 10, Catherine was greatly moved by The Coal Miner’s Daughter, the film about Loretta Lynn. Others, like Dolly Parton, came to inspire her as well. “Or was it that my voice was country-sounding?” she muses. The voice had told her parents it was the talent to promote. Now the character of that voice was telling her which style was her natural fit.

The ladies first inspired Catherine, but it was Hank Williams who became, and remains, her favourite. Why? “I don’t think there’s ever been an honesty like his…not to that extent. People hold back.” Holding back on honesty is not Catherine’s way either. A sampling of her performances available on the internet makes that apparent.

There are other fascinating connections between Catherine, Steve, and Hank. Catherine and her father share the same birthday. Steve was born on the actual day Hank died. Some channelling, perhaps?

Catherine’s success was rapid. Elton John heard her, loved her voice, championed her, made connections. She had a record contract with a top American label before setting foot in the US – an Australian first.

Whisked to the States with Steve in tow, Catherine recalls, “it was the craziest five days. I was in high school, then I was in America.” Auditioning, recording, meeting and working with ‘greats’ in the game – even a specially arranged performance on the hallowed stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

For Steve, too, it was “overwhelming and exciting”, and quite surreal to be in a café and look over to see Kenny Rogers at another table. Afterwards came the dawning reality: “Catherine could end up moving to America.” This realisation ached in a father’s heart.

She did move, of course. Catherine’s career has her dividing time between the United States and Australia – Nashville and Newcastle. “America is a second home,” says Catherine, “but very much secondary.”

Her home town has been the stage for Catherine’s recent well known challenge. Breast cancer has been comprehensively treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation at Calvary Mater Hospital.

The daring bald woman who received her Golden Guitar in January boldly displays that baldness in her video clip “We’re All Waiting”, filmed around Newcastle’s foreshore.

Devastated and in shock for some days after diagnosis, Catherine then switched gear. Steve shared his daughter’s reaction. First he was overwhelmed. He, too, switched gear. He inherited from his mother, and has in turn passed on to Catherine, a pragmatic approach to any challenge: “This is the situation. What are we going to do about it?”

The best wide-ranging treatments have resulted in Catherine feeling positive and well. The return of her hair signals hope for complete wellness. She hasn’t been stopped, just slowed a bit – and only for a short while.

Nine days after surgery Catherine was back touring in Queensland.

As well, she and James recently celebrated their marriage in Newcastle.

And, as if that was not enough to occupy them, the family has become owner of the music magazine Rhythms. Each is now responsible for an aspect of a full-on publishing venture which embraces the music scene so central to their identity.

What impact has the encounter with cancer had on Catherine? “My outlook on life is completely different,” she volunteers. Steve elaborates: “She’s much more mature in the way she looks at things. Now she doesn’t get upset easily.” Catherine nods in agreement.

In light of this current picture of parent/child harmony, you may be wondering how things turned out when father and daughter were rivals on RocKwiz.

Steve’s encyclopaedic recall was impressive. Catherine, however, was heading up a team including a man whom Steve assured me was autistic, providing an unfair advantage. From this human hard-drive data storage and retrieval system came quick-fire answers. The show ended with the closest of scores.

Catherine was victorious and jubilant.

PS. Anne and James don’t feature in this Two by Two story, but figure greatly in real life.

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Michael O’Connor Image
Michael O’Connor

Michael is a regular contributor to Aurora Magazine.

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