It all started with a hairbrush. As a youngster, Etta Britt (born Melissa Prewitt) would spend hours at her bedroom mirror, belting out Supremes songs into her Stanley hairbrush. But the seasoned veteran, who has toured the world and shared a stage or recording studio with everyone from Engelbert Humperdinck to REO Speedwagon, didn’t want to be Diana Ross. Her ambition was to be Mary Wilson. Chances are you’ve heard her voice or seen her on TV in a background vocalist capacity. But, in spite of her modest ambition, the chance is even greater that when you hear Etta Britt sing front and center as a solo artist, relegating her to the background will pretty much be an impossible task. With what she calls a “cool groove record” — her first album for the Wrinkled Records label — Etta stakes her claim as one of the most versatile singers working today. She also happens to write a heart-piercing, soul-affirming tune from time to time. Think Bonnie Raitt meets John Hiatt.
Born in Lancaster, Ky., a town of 3,500 south of Lexington, her family moved to Louisville when Etta was in second grade, returning to Lancaster in the middle of her junior year of high school. “My dad was a truck driver and he couldn’t be settled,” she says with a laugh. “Unfortunately, I have a little bit of that in me. I’m always ready for the next thing.” At age 11, Melissa first became Etta thanks to her little sister. “She called me Etta and I called her Myrna. We don’t know why. It could’ve been a couple of old ladies in our hometown out in the country. But we don’t know.”
Although she first made her way to Nashville at 20, demo record in hand, her “big break” would come when she returned to Music City in 1978 to audition for a spot in Dave & Sugar, a country-music trio led by Dave Rowland and backed by two female singers — at the time Vicki Baker and Sue Powell. Having heard about the audition through her dad, whose truck-driving coworker was Sue Powell’s father, she traveled to Atlanta where Dave & Sugar were doing a show for the Oak Ridge Boys, bravely approaching Rowland backstage to tell him she was interested in joining the group. After a couple of weeks, she received a call from Rowland asking her to audition. “I guess he liked my boldness in driving to Atlanta and getting backstage,” she says. After auditioning, just two weeks later, she was at home in Lexington, Ky, when the call came asking her to join the group. Mere weeks later, she would be playing gigs in front of crowds of 30,000 or more. Etta was with the trio from 1979 to 1985, during which time they were nominated for CMA Vocal Group of the Year five years in a row, and toured with Kenny Rogers, Dottie West, Tammy Wynette, Gallagher and Conway Twitty, among many others. The experience led to countless TV appearances — everything from Pop! Goes the Country and Solid Gold to the Dinah Shore Show and Dance Fever.
After Dave & Sugar, she made the rounds in Nashville, playing clubs and singing backgrounds in recording studios with many artists. During a session at Leon Russell’s studio, Etta’s husband, renowned guitarist Bob Britt, memorialized his wife’s stage name when he scribbled “Etta Britt” on a track sheet after her sister called asking for Etta. She would also meet singer-songwriter Sandy Knox, who would go on to form Wrinkled Records, which is releasing Etta’s latest album. Etta began to align herself with other Music City tunesmiths to hone her craft as a songwriter.
One sleepless night not long ago, Etta was sipping coffee and sitting in front of her computer. Updating her Facebook status, she wrote “Alone in a quiet house.” A few weeks later, the line would come back to her after being contacted — through Facebook — by songwriter Rebecca Lynn Howard. The two instantly formed a mutual admiration society, and when they added award-winning songwriter Rachel Thibodeau to their very first writing session, one of her album’s most strikingly beautiful songs, “Quiet House,” was born. Etta and Rebecca would go on to co-write “Dear You” for the record as well. Etta’s other co-writers on the album include acclaimed Irish singer-songwriter Tony Kerr. Etta also recorded two songs pitched to her by legendary singer Michael McDonald and cut “Leap of Faith,” popularized by Delbert McClinton, as a rockin’ duet with Delbert himself.
“With some of the more uptempo things, I can picture someone sweeping their floor or groovin’ along sitting in their car,” says Etta. “But with ‘The Chokin’ Kind,’ (a Harlan Howard classic), I want a big knot to come into their stomach. I just want to be able to touch people.”
Her unique approach to recording a song includes hours studying the lyrics as if reading a book about a character she will inhabit in order to establish an emotional connection between herself, the character and, ultimately, the listener. Perhaps the most emotionally-charged tune on the album, however, concerns two characters she didn’t have to spend much time studying; she had only to experience the difficult circumstances that led to its creation. Etta penned the unforgettable “She’s 18″ after a knock-down-drag-out fight with her teenage daughter.
If the voice doesn’t do it (and it does), the songs themselves put listeners on notice that Etta Britt is a courageous and genuine artist.