by Ashley Lucas
Sometimes you hear a song and it just lights something up in you. I remember the first time I heard Ray Lamontagne’s song “Jolene”. I listened to it over and over again, because something about it made me feel all the feels. I didn’t necessarily relate to every word he sang, but the emotion was so strong, that I didn’t need to share the experience, to experience the experience with him. As a songwriter, you go one step beyond just feeling a song. You study chord progressions, the rhyme scheme, the brilliant prosody it may contain, and at the end of the day, you just think, “damn, I wish I wrote that song.”
I love finding a song that does that to me, and I get even more excited when that song is written by someone in our own backyard. Catherine Backus, a 25 year-old from Bedford, VA, has just been announced as a finalist in the national Chris Austin Songwriting Competition, for her song “Tomatoes” The Chris Austin Songwriting Competition has been a staple at Merlefest, a roots festival in Wilkesboro, NC, since the 90s, and is known for its quality of entrants. Past winners include Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Sam Quinn, and Adrienne Young, just to name a few. Backus, who’s day job is an activity director at an adult day care center, is a name who I believe will be just as well-known as those aforementioned.
Backus, who’s also won the Smith Mountain Lake Idol and the Lyrics on the Lake open mic competition, cut her first solo effort at the Fainting Goat with Willy Gurly. She wanted to obtain a stripped-down sound similar to Patty Griffin’s “Living With Ghosts”, which she completely succeeded in doing. The entire album is worth purchasing twice, but the song “Tomatoes” is her most accessible song. “It tells a story but there’s a lot of room for projection, and I think it’s got a pretty catchy lil’ hook, too,” says Backus of her tune. But it’s more than a catchy hook. There’s a rawness to the performance of the song that is reminiscent of a young Gillian Welch. Her writing is alive with imagery and breathes a depth that seems wiser and more knowing than possible for being as young as she is.
Backus, who is a classically trained trumpet player, is also a ridiculously good guitarist. She says of her writing style, “when I write something, I just play it over and over until it comes together. If I can’t remember it without writing it down, it’s probably not very good. A preposition or verb might change as I play it out, but usually that first draft is most of it. If a song takes me more than half an hour to get, I step away and let it marinate.” Her goal as a songwriter is “to make other people feel heard and seen. To take all the messy, ugly, hard parts of being a person and turn them into something beautiful.” Catherine the Great (her stage name), is well on her way to achieving that goal. She will travel to Wilkesboro on April 27th to compete for the grand prize in Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. My money is on her.
I haven’t been able to stop listening to the song “Tomatoes”. I guarantee you won’t be able to either!
Go see Catherine the Great live at the Bean Tree Café in Lynchburg on 4/20.