For Vienna-based blues musician Cathy Ponton King, music runs in her blood. Growing up in an Irish-American household in Hyattsville, Md., singing was just part of the tradition. Her grandmother Margaret Coakley, who established the Irish American Club of Washington, would hold house parties where members would take turns singing songs.
“My grandmother could silence a room,” King said.
Following her lead, King had been performing at these parties since she was four years old. It wasn’t long before she got a guitar and started learning songs published weekly in the now defunct Washington Star, a daily evening newspaper.
“There was a huge explosion of music at that point,” she said. “And that was right when I was old enough to get a guitar.” She learned by listening to artists such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
“I had this terrible guitar … it was really a toy,” she said. “And my fingers were bloody, I had Band-Aids on my fingers.” But that didn’t hold her back. Several guitars later and into her college years, King was a regular performer of Irish folk music at a tavern downtown D.C. called The Dubliner.
“The Irish music was fantastic because it gave me a platform on which to build. The music was just great — it was exuberant, and sad, sad, sad songs about all the oppression, the suffering. There are a lot of people today who say that the Irish soul is full of anguish,” she said. “That put me in the right framework to play blues, because the two are so similar.”
But the real push to the blues came with King’s brush with legend Muddy Waters. Her friend, who was dating the guitarist for Muddy Waters’s band, invited her to a sold-out concert at a club in Georgetown called the Cellar Door. Backstage, King had the chance to talk to Muddy Waters one on one.
“He was great: his singing, his guitar playing,” she said. “He used to play a slide guitar and it was just piercing, just unbelievable piercing, right into your cerebellum, right into your heart … That really riveted me to want to play music.”
Muddy Waters' influence compelled King to put together her own group called the Rhythmasters, with which she recorded several songs on compilation albums. But when it came time to record her own album, she started fresh with her old friend Jimmy Thackery as her lead guitarist, as well as John Previti, a former bassist for blues guitarist Danny Gatton’s band. On the recommendation of a friend, King used a recording studio in Beltsville, Md. where the then-owner and producer her of CD, Jeff King, eventually became her husband.
The final product, titled Lovin’ you Right, finally came out in the mid-1990s with tracks written by both Cathy and Jeff King, as well as a few co-written by Thackery. Since then, she’s gotten CD orders from all over, including France, Russia and South Korea, which she attributes in part to the club Madams Organ in Washington where she performs before international crowds.
Cathy Ponton King has also performed at such venues as Wolf Trap, Strathmore in Bethesda, Md., as well as clubs like Blues Alley in D.C. and Bangkok Blues. She has opened for such notables as Buddy Guy, Danny Gatton and Willie Dixon and has played with Bobby Parker, Bob Margolin and saxophonist Ron Holloway. She was even called on stage to sing with legend Albert King.
While playing with the greats and developing a fan-base internationally, however, King still maintains a day job at an emerging television network, Verizon FiOS. Just after receiving a journalism degree at the University of Maryland, she worked at ABC for three years as a desk assistant collecting emerging news from wire services — a post that was also held by Katie Couric at the time.
“I loved it, it was a lot of fun and everything, but there was always something tearing at me,” she said. “What if? I should try to be a musician, because I don’t want to be an old lady saying, ‘Aw I should’ve tried to be a [musician].’”
King’s new album UNDERTOW, which includes all original songs, is coming out this fall.
“I can’t wait for my new album to come out,” she said. “There’s a famous quote, ‘Writing a book is like throwing a rose petal down the Grand Canyon,’ and I think that’s the same thing with putting out a CD.”
But for King, her music is an art.
“There’s a lot to be said for doing something for the love of it,” King said. “When I’m writing a song, I’m not thinking this is what’s going to be the million-dollar hit. You’re writing from your soul.”
Cathy Ponton King will be performing at Madams Organ on August 24.
For more information, check her website at www.zptduda.com/cp.