He's neither a Burt Bachrach nor an Irving Berlin. He can't call Hollywood or New York City his home, but Louis Cate of Oxon Hill, Md., is a prize-winning songwriter.
Last month Cate won his fourth award in four years of competitive songwriting -- a remarkable accomplishment for a man who says he was "tossed out of the musical composition department at Catholic University three times."
Cate, at 29 still a happy-go-lucky bachelor, has sidestepped his academic shortcomings and brought himself to the attention of country and western music lovers. How did he do it? Cate muses, "My grandfather used to say, 'If you don't put your hook in the water, you're not going to catch any fish.'"
He has taken this as his personal proverb and applied it to his daily life. Summer after summer he has stalked song publishers in New York and Nashville only to be told, "We want to hear the sound of money," or, "Anyone can write an album cut, kid. We want hit singles."
"Nashville publishers are tough, but more humanly helpful," he explains. "Once, in a bar there, I recognized one who was the manager of a country music star. I tried to talk to him about my songs. He just looked at me and said, 'Son, there's an unwritten rule in Nashville: Never try to talk business in a bar. Never bother a man while he's drinking'.'"
Cate broke another rule of the trade by using the name of Nashville in a song title, but it didn't keep his "First Snow in Nashville" from taaking first prize in a regional songwriting contest sponsered by Kentucky Fried Chicken. The soft ballad was played over radio station WFLS in Virginia, and Cate received a $200 cassette recorder in lieu of cash. The song has been entered in the sponsor's national competition, and if it wins first or second place, will be recorded by country music singer Barbara Mandrell.
Cate, like other prize-winning songwriters, feels indebted to those who have helped him reach his goal. He says Bill Flanders, of Singers Studio in Washington, gave him and "a hundred other writers in the area a place to perform when other clubs wouldn't touch us." He says his "musical guru" over the past 10 years has been Charlie Buxton, also of Catholic University, who helped with the background music when Cate taped his songs. He says the English songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1976 -- the same year Cate won honorable mention in the American Song Festival -- had the strongest influence on his music.
Cate says he uses a "varitey of styles" in composition. The song he considers his funniest, "Get Out of My Face," was inspired by classroom banter at Nanjemoy-Mount Hope High School in Charles County, where he teaches elementary music. Cate says he tries out new songs on his students. "The kids are so honest, they'll say in a moment if the song is awful, unsingable or good."
Some of his other songs are "Moontan," which describes a wedding of vampries; one with controverisal theme, "Abort the Court," and the conventional "I Love You."
Cate has conducted the All-Charles County Children's Chorus in renditions of four of his compositions. "I have several shelf songs," he laments, "songs which are too arty to go anywhere on the hit-record charts."
To be "influenced by commerical songwriting," Cate says he listens only to "AM top-forty country and pop radio. He says this gives him a feeling for what kinds of songs are selling, week by week. He was encouraged when Nashville publishers Kendall Franchesi of Con Brio and Larry Lee of Cederwood (the city's third largest) kept copies of his demonstration tapes. In New York, he says, Robin Feather of Belwin-Mills and Cotillion also held onto his tape.
Cate says the publishers are looking for "self-contained artists -- a package -- good singers who write their own material. I would like to get into performing eventually, but I'm taking one step at a time."
Louis Cate will keep his artistic hook in the water. He will return to teaching in the fall, and next summer will again go to Nashville and New York, in search of that elusive big break into the music industry.
Will this man of easy smiles and free spirit become discouraged and give up this life style?
"Not likely," he says, with a serious tone. "I'm a songwriter for life. There's no doubt about it."