Etta Britt has spent much of her musical life in a supporting role. She got her start as the nameless “sugar” in the pop-country trio Dave and Sugar. She halted her music career so her husband could make his name as a guitarist while she raised the family. She sang back-up on songs that would bring acclaim to bigger names. She had all but given up on singing in the limelight when a burgeoning record label gave her an opportunity to take the center stage, and now the 55-year-old singer-songwriter is latching on to a dream that had escaped her all her life.
She started hunting for a record deal at 20 years old, heading down to Nashville from her Kentucky hometown with a demo tape in hand. Behind her were the years of choir and talent show performances, all born from the childhood beginnings of singing along to her favorite songs, a hairbrush as her microphone. Those early efforts shopping around her demo were fruitless; her big break would come a few years later, in the late ’70s, when she auditioned for and secured a spot in Dave Rowland’s Dave and Sugar. Tours supporting top country artists and CMA award nods followed, but her time in the group was brief. Rowland disbanded the group to fly solo in the early ’80s.
It was in the wake of the breakup that Britt came closest to that elusive record deal. A producer was interested, she got the OK to get into the studio, and the stars seemed to finally be aligning. But, Britt explained, Nashville was a place for country singers back then, and she had found her niche doing something more soulful, more bluesy. The project was nixed.
At about the same time, she had met and married guitarist Bob Britt. They started a family, and soon realized that when two struggling musicians become parents, something has to give.
“We were two self-employed musicians with two little baby girls and no money,” she said. “So I put [my career] on the backburner to raise my girls.”
She waited tables and cleaned houses to bring home a paycheck, and later settled into a career as a real estate agent. But she wasn’t happy doing that.
“I never gave up on singing,” Britt said. “I never stopped singing.”
She didn’t know, however, how her career in music would pan out. She was singing back-up and playing a bit around town all the while, but live singing and recording wasn’t working out for Britt. She’d thought about putting out a vanity record on her own dime, but never got around to it. She eventually segued into songwriting, performing at local writers’ nights to show audiences what she could pen.
Maybe it was good karma making its way back around that put Sandy Knox in the audience one fateful night. Many years before, Britt sang back-up for Knox. The accomplished songwriter, who had written a handful of hits for country star Reba McEntire and earned herself a Grammy nomination in the process, was now parlaying her experience into launching a record label.
Wrinkled Records was the label and, Britt later learned at a lunch meeting with Knox and label manager Katie Gillon, they wanted her to be the first artist they signed.
“I literally looked around and said “me?” It was shocking,” Britt said. “I was 53 at the time, and that was the last thing I expected to come out of either of their mouths. It was exciting and surprising; a sense of new hope just came over me.”
Her aptly titled debut album Out of the Shadows came out this spring, and after 35 years of trying, Britt finally took the center stage at her record release show.
“I felt like I have a brand new life starting over,” Britt said. “I’m starting a brand new chapter here, and this is the first night of it.”
• Etta Britt will perform at JV’s Restaurant in Falls Church Saturday, Oct. 20, at 9:30 p.m. For more information about Britt, visit ettabritt.com.