From her very first gig playing drums in an amusement park version of "Free to Be You and Me," to a more recent engagement at the White House just days before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Catie Curtis has never lost her sense of optimism. You can sense it even when she's singing about Katrina-stricken New Orleans ("The truth is bigger than these drops of rain falling") or the closed-down mills and empty storefronts of the town she grew up in ("River winding through the darkness, sometimes cursed and sometimes blessed").
And for each of those, there's a song like "Happy," in which she convinces you to "Take the weight off of your shoulders, I'll show you how."
So it's no surprise that the Boston-based musician's talent continues to resonate, whether it's through a half-dozen performances at the Newport Folk Festival, numerous intimate house concerts, or acclaimed albums on prestigious labels like Rykodisc, Compass and Vanguard, including a self-titled 1997 breakthrough that was named Best Album at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards.
Through it all, Curtis has resisted being filed, stamped, indexed or numbered. She's written songs with country/pop artist Beth Nielsen Chapman, while also covering the late, lamented Morphine's "The Night." And while she's a contemporary of singer-songwriters like Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls, her music draws more inspiration from Cat Stevens and Bruce Springsteen than it does Holly Near and Cris Williamson.
"I think they're courageous artists and they blazed the trail with integrity, but I don't think that musically we're coming from the same place," says Curtis. "They're wonderful musicians, but I would say that I'm a little more influenced by pop and rock than they are."
Of course, the lines between those genres can get pretty blurry. "I play solo a lot, and I base most of my arrangements on the acoustic guitar, which is why I am considered a folk singer," says Curtis. "But I think in terms of the lyrics and the melodies, it could really be indie rock or, you know, there's a lot of different genres. I think that the categories have most to do with the instrument you use and the clothes that you wear, and possibly your age."
Curtis, who's 45 and dresses nicely, says she doesn't really bother trying to define or redefine herself. "I think once people hear it," she says, "they definitely get where I'm coming from."
Fans in high places
It's that ability to connect that's earned Curtis a devoted following, including at least one Washington insider.
"The woman who's the director of the White House office of visitors came forward as a Catie Curtis fan about a year ago," says the singer-songwriter, explaining how she was invited to play a reception for White House staff and their families last month. Curtis' own parents, who live in Maine and are now in their 70s, flew in to see her perform. "They had never been to the White House before, and they stood there and watched me play, and they still say it was a real highlight of their lives."
After playing the mother of all house concerts, Curtis had further excuse to celebrate later that week, when Congress put an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in the military.
"I really can't take credit, because I think people in government and activists did a little more," she says with a laugh. "But I do like to think that I somehow gave a blessing to the whole idea while I was there."
Highway from hell
Last month's milestones would have seemed inconceivable to Curtis during her troubled high school years, when emerging identity issues convinced her she'd most likely to go to hell, if there was one. Today, she and her wife, Liz Marshall, are proud parents of two daughters and a dog, with a new album called Highway Del Sol on the way.
Working with Lorne Entress, who also produced 2006's Long Night Moon, Curtis says the half-completed album feels less polished than its predecessors, the arrangements more in keeping with her vocals and lyrics. She's been recording with members of Ray LaMontagne's backing band, and is especially excited about drummer Jay Bellerose's unusual assortment of found objects and esoteric percussion instruments.
After all, it was the drums that got her started on all this at age 15. "I was just like a pig in mud," she says of her fateful amusement park debut. "It was like, this is the art scene as it existed in Saco, Maine — A Funtown USA version of 'Free to Be You and Me' — and I felt like I had just gone to heaven."
So had it not been for the influence of "Free to Be You and Me," does Curtis think she might have ended up being straight?
"Well, you know, I haven't really thought about that," she confesses. "I have to go back to therapy now and figure that out."