Tift Merritt Enjoys Mile High Moments: New Mom Still Chill Enough for Rock ‘n’ Roll
It was the final night of the tour and Tift Merritt was tired, end-of-the-dirt road tired.
Maybe there was more than a practical reason for the North Carolina-raised singer-songwriter to request having the stage lights turned down after her opening number. Was this also a symbolic gesture from a riveting performer with multiple Grammy Award nominations on her resume who is continuously associated with some of Americana’s most resplendent voices?
“These lights are so bright and I’m feeling like I’m hung over, even though I’m not,” Merritt said following “Wait for Me,” one of several dreamy ballads from Stitch of the World, her splendid 2017 record and the sixth studio album of her coveted career. “Maybe we can make it a little more mysterious and rock ’n’ roll and, like, Keith Richards might appear to me. Rather than like some government investigation that will never happen.”
Still displaying the youthful exuberance and wide-eyed optimism of her professional birth as a solo musician with the release of Bramble Rose in 2002 at the age of 27, Merritt wasn’t necessarily trying to avoid the spotlight — or an interrogation — when she appeared on May 16 at the Soiled Dove in Denver.
With her loyal brother George in the audience, Merritt did admit 17 minutes into the set that she had been feeling woozy after her arrival in the Mile High City and wondered, “What is wrong with me? … And then I realized it was the altitude. And that if I drank a beer, everything would be fine.”
That it was as one of the brightest — if somewhat unheralded — lights on the roots scene gave a spirited performance that included eight of nine Merritt-written songs from Stitch of the World, which she co-produced with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, who also makes an album appearance on “Something Came Over Me.”
Eric Heywood (pedal steel), a skilled studio and touring musician, and the solo artist’s personal and professional partner who joined her onstage, was a most valuable player on Merritt’s first full-album release since 2012’s Traveling Alone, joining Marc Ribot (guitars, ukulele, banjo), Jennifer Condos (bass) and Jay Bellerose (drums). Also on the road journey to Denver was Matt Lorenz, a talented Massachusetts-based multi-instrumentalist who served as a literal one-man band as the show’s opening act he calls the Suitcase Junket.
The pretty pedal steel playing by Heywood (left) was featured early and often, then the set picked up steam with the inclusion of mid-tempo offerings such as “Heartache is an Uphill Climb” and “Dusty Old Man.”
In between those rollicking numbers that nudged a subdued but attentive audience, Merritt moved from the piano and attempted to tune her acoustic guitar, apologizing for the trouble during the delay.
“I’m so sorry. I guess this guitar doesn’t like the altitude either,” she joked, to which a quick-thinking man in the crowd yelled out, “Give it a beer.”
Everyone laughed, including Merritt, who added, “OK. Man, what a weird week. Are you guys doing OK? Does anybody feel like they’re in an episode of Rocky Horror?”
If there was a discombobulated aura in the air (a woman from the audience randomly shouted “beautiful album”), it evaporated after Merritt revealed two recent additions in her life that became running themes as her charming chatter added levity to the proceedings.
“I have to admit that there have been a couple of nights on this tour where I’ve drank tequila,” Merritt said. “And the reason is — you guys know — it’s really hard to go from like mom to a 1-year-old to chill enough to play rock ’n’ roll music. And these shows have become even more important to me than they already were because (brief pause) nobody can touch me during this time. (audience laughs, applauds) But my sweet, sweet daughter, she’s been on some great adventures. But, yes, when you’re gonna put your daughter to sleep backstage, it’s gonna take a tequila. (crowd chuckles, murmurs) …
“Not for her,” she clarified. “You’re gonna get her taken away from me. (everyone laughs) OK. I might need to take some tequila now.”
While celebratory drinking at road stops and touring with baby Jean don’t necessarily go hand in hand, they make perfect sense for Merritt, who is embracing motherhood (even without the alcohol) at age 42.
Promising to sip slowly a just-delivered glass of tequila following her adaption of Raymond Carver’s poem “My Boat,” she shared the drink with Heywood later, pointing out that “he gets the whole bottle of tequila” during tour stops with Chrissie Hynde.
This isn’t that kind of show, though Merritt closed out the first hour with a Pretenders-like burst of energy by strapping on a Creston electric guitar and unleashing “Proclamation Bones,” proving the woman who has made a living touching hearts has a few sonic blasts to the brain in her arsenal.
The electric shock wave was all the more jolting because it followed a series of poignant ballads starting with an absolutely gorgeous “Icarus” that set up “Another Country” and “Eastern Light.” The latter was inspired by what she has said was “the heavy sadness of memory washing over me” following a devastating breakup — and preceded Merritt’s most touching tribute to her daughter.
“I wrote all of these songs (off Stitch of the World) actually before my daughter was born,” Merritt said. “She was the first person to hear them. But I’ve learned a lot about joy and music from her. If you could see her face when she sees a piece of celery.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of joy one tiny thing can feel about a piece of celery. And I’d like to think that even though I’m not as skilled at communicating joy as she is, that I did write this song as a precursor to what she has taught me. That no matter what is happening, there is an overwhelming amount of good in the world every single day.”
It was a nice way to introduce “Something Came Over Me,” the Stitch of the World cut she has said was written “in a hungover moment of joy coming out of a subway,” with lyrics describing the feeling “like lightning made by summer heat.”
It’s particularly refreshing to see an artist maintain integrity, authenticity and a positive outlook while expressing such strong emotions, even when life occasionally provides a few surprises.
Seven years ago, as I interviewed a delightful Merritt on the phone ahead of the release of her fourth studio album, See You On the Moon, she sounded over the moon about her then-one-year marriage to longtime drummer Zeke Hutchins as they were preparing to move from one New York City apartment to another.
“Married life is lovely,” Merritt said then, having been in a steady relationship with Hutchins for 13 years since their days at the University of North Carolina before getting hitched in March 2009. “I didn’t know, I was kinda scared (laughs). But now I’m like, ‘Gosh, this was the best thing. Why didn’t we do this years ago?’ ”
In 2010, Merritt also was getting ready to go on tour with Hutchins and most of the others who played on See You On the Moon, but there was a brand new guitarist — Eric Heywood — joining them.
The versatile musician has worked with artists ranging from the Pretenders, John Doe and Son Volt to Lisa Hannigan, Andrew Bird and Over the Rhine, but then was on loan from Ray LaMontagne’s band. Heywood is the father of Merritt’s daughter, who was proudly presented on the singer’s Instagram account on Mother’s Day 2016.
During our 2010 interview, Merritt pointed out that songs were the babies in her life.
“When they’re born, it’s just me,” she said. “I’m playing them by myself. And then, they come to band practice, and they get to be children. And then they go in the studio and things get more grown up, right? More fleshed out and they stand on their own. Hopefully, they’ve stood on their own from the very beginning. I think that’s one of the important things when I think about what a good song is. I think a good song really is a song that can hold as much music as you want it to hold, like strings and horns and choirs, and be so powerful.”
None of those precious songs can hold a candle now to baby Jean, who shares the same name of Merritt’s late grandmother, the subject of “Feel Of The World” and a See You On the Moon dedication following her death in May 2009.
Equally adept at writing about moments of joy or sorrow, Merritt hopefully won’t wait five more years to release her next album.
Heading into a three-song encore that included the title track of her debut album (with a shout-out to Don Henley), the ending to one of her last anecdotes — about an ex-guitarist’s penchant for convincing audiences to offer the lead singer bottles of Maker’s Mark during shows — might shed some light on her future.
“We had to leave the bottles in the dressing room because … I guess I should write down what happens to a band when they take a bottle of whiskey with them to the hotel,” Merritt said her of experience “many, many moons ago” on tour. “Anyway, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to talk so much. It’s the last night of the tour. I’m gonna wake up tomorrow at 9 o’clock and be like, ’I need some attention.’ ”
Fifteen years after earning her merit badge in music-making, love means never having to say you’re sorry to adoring audiences — particularly when your baby is sleeping backstage.
Whether as mommy, musician or Maker’s Mark mark, this is Tift Merritt’s moment. She deserves to shine any time she wants.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including No Depression and HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas
This article was first published at HuffPost. Concert photos by Michael Bialas.
Tift Merritt at the Soiled Dove (May 16, 2017)
• 1. “Wait for Me”
• 2. “Stitch of the World”
• 3.” Small Talk Relations”
• 4. “Heartache is an Uphill Climb”
• 5. “Dusty Old Man”
• 6. “My Boat”
• 7. “Traveling Alone”
• 8. “Icarus”
• 9. “Another Country”
• 10. “Eastern Light”
• 11. “Something Came Over Me”
• 12. “Proclamation Bones”
• 1. “Drifting Apart”
• 2. “All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight”
• 3. “Bramble Rose”