Tift Merritt – A good country mile
It’s a long way from the front porch of the General Store in Bynum, North Carolina, to the small stage of the Borderline nightclub in London, England. The rooms are actually about the same size, but they’re a world apart in form and function. The Borderline is a dark, cozy bar, serving up liquor and live music to in-the-know London patrons (until 11 p.m., when it transmogrifies into a rather annoying discotheque). The Bynum General Store is a daytime operation, its shelves stocked with everything from bottled soda pop to fishing lures to canned pork brains. It also operates as a Post Office for the few dozen residents of this quiet burg about an hour east of Raleigh.
On March 21, Tift Merritt found herself onstage at the Borderline, beaming as she revealed to the crowd that it was the first time she and her band, the Carbines, had played a gig outside of the United States. On June 4, her first album, Bramble Rose, will be released by Lost Highway Records. Merritt and her band spent last September recording the album in Los Angeles at a studio across the lot from Bonnie Raitt, one of Merritt’s musical heroes. She and the Carbines will spend the rest of the year on the road, bringing their music to many other faraway places they’ve never played before.
But she still keeps a P.O. Box at the Bynum General Store.
Merritt was living in a small country house not far from the General Store in 1997 and going to school at the University of North Carolina, a half-hour up the road in Chapel Hill, when she met Zeke Hutchins in an American Studies class. Both were late-comers to collegiate life. Merritt, who grew up in Raleigh, had spent a few years years after high school in the Carolina coastal town of Wilmington and in New York City. Hutchins, a native of nearby Durham, had put in a year at UNC in the early ’90s but dropped out when Queen Sarah Saturday, the alt-rock band he played drums with, got a deal with major-label affiliate Thirsty Ear Records.
He returned to UNC shortly after the band called it quits in 1996, planning to become an elementary-school teacher. Hutchins got sidetracked shortly after Merritt mentioned she wrote songs and passed along a demo tape she’d made during her days in New York. “Later on that evening when I was getting around to studying, I threw it in the boombox, and just…stopped,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is really good.’ And then I remember riding to the store that night with my father, and I put it in [the tape deck], and he was like, ‘Wow, this reminds me of Emmylou Harris!'”
Hutchins wasted no time in letting Merritt know he wanted to play music with her. “The very next weekend, Zeke brought his drums to my house, and set them up in my kitchen,” she says. “And he was like, ‘We are having a band.'”
A few weeks and a handful of practices later, Merritt and Hutchins played their first gig, in December 1997, as a guitar-and-drums duo at a friendly Chapel Hill dive called the Cave. School remained a priority for both of them — Hutchins eventually earned his degree in 2000, while Merritt got within a couple courses of completion — but it didn’t take long before Merritt’s torchy twang began to turn heads in the alt-country-heavy Triangle music scene.
A full band, eventually dubbed the Carbines, began to coalesce in the summer of ’98 with fiddler Margaret White, bassist Christopher Thurston, and keyboardist/pedal steel player Greg Readling. That lineup recorded a 7-inch single, “Juke Joint Girl”/”Cowboy”, which they issued on their own imprint, Oil Rig, in the summer of ’99.
Part of being your own label is sending out copies of your record for prospective publicity and gigs, so Merritt started making frequent trips to the Bynum General Store with a bundle of packages to ship at the Post Office. The store’s owner, Jerry Partin, got curious as to just what this young woman was up to.
“I’d come down here with this big box of mail, and Jerry was like, ‘Girl, you’re sending more mail than everybody in Bynum combined. What are you doing?’ And I told him that I had this band, and that I was trying to get a gig. And he was like, ‘I don’t believe you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I do.’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I don’t believe you till you come down here and set up on the front porch and play.'”
Merritt called his bluff: The Carbines came down to the store shortly thereafter, and played on the front porch. Thus began a tradition that has endured, and blossomed. Merritt and her band continue to play there a couple times a year, though the crowds have grown from a handful of locals sitting around picnic tables savoring homemade soup to last summer’s swarm of 500-plus fans from throughout the Triangle sprawled all over the primary road leading into Bynum.
It took awhile for the Carbines to become such a draw. The 7-inch single was a good starting point; the next step was a fortuitous kinship with the Two Dollar Pistols, the Triangle’s most tried-and-true honky-tonk band since the mid-’90s. Led by classic country crooner John Howie, the Pistols have weathered a parade of personnel changes over the years; many of the area’s most prolific roots musicians have logged time with the group.
“I think our bands immediately bonded because we were doing this country thing that wasn’t making fun of country music, and it was a lot more old-style country than it was rockabilly,” Merritt says. The Pistols and the Carbines played plenty of shows together, both locally and regionally. The connection between the bands became interwoven when Howie and Merritt decided to work up some duets together, resulting in an EP titled The Two Dollar Pistols With Tift Merritt (released in October 1999 on local label Yep Roc). Five of the seven tracks were covers of country classics, supplemented by two Howie/Merritt co-writes.
Though they did some touring together behind the EP, and the Two Dollar Pistols had a higher national profile at the time (with two full-length indie-lable discs already to their credit), Merritt says she never really considered making the Pistols project a priority over her own band. “I think John and I knew we were a great team and we were having a lot of fun. But John is a songwriter, and I’m a songwriter,” she explains. “We both were strong individual artists.”