Tift Merritt – The big picture
Where do you file Dusty Springfield’s Dusty In Memphis? Most music historians classify the U.K. pop singer’s 1969 LP a masterpiece of R&B. But ask the clerk at any chain store, and he or she will likely dispatch you to the vocals or oldies section. What about Linda Ronstadt? Never mind her flirtations with operetta, canciones, and throat singing; should Heart Like A Wheel and Simple Dreams be filed under rock or country?
recognizes that the hallmark of a timeless album is often its inability to be pigeonholed. “My favorite records, like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, or Carole King’s Tapestry, they’re not genre-bound,” says Merritt. “They contain elements of soul, country, rock ‘n’ roll, all of it. That what makes them cool.” Sure, King cut her teeth in the early ’60s penning Brill Building Top 40 fare, but, as Merritt rightly contends, “‘I Feel The Earth Move’ is a soul song.”
Merritt had such things in mind when she set to writing Tambourine, released August 24 on Lost Highway Records (her second album for the label, following her 2002 debut Bramble Rose). “Carole King was certainly an inspiration. Because I wanted to make a record that was really honest, and had songs that I could be very proud of, and sing hard…and I wanted to marry that with the rock ‘n’ roll energy that we have on the road, when we play on a Saturday night at 1 in the morning. I wanted the new songs to be soulful in a way that was not introverted, but very extroverted.”
Tambourine strikes a gripping balance between intimacy and pop immediacy, sans gimmicks or cliches. “Lost Highway is about that,” she says, “giving artists like me a place in the world without saying, ‘You’ve got to make something that isn’t true to yourself.'” So at no point did she get the call from the A&R department saying they didn’t hear a hit single? “Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” she concedes, laughing. “Don’t be living in dream land.”
Whether there’s a hit single here — the immediately catchy rocker “Wait It Out” is probably the best bet — is for conglomerated radio to decide. More importantly, though, Tambourine comfortably incorporates a breadth of styles, including sassy New Orleans-style funk (“Your Love Made A U-Turn”), smoldering soul balladry (“Good Hearted Man”), and a rambling ’70s rocker that could pass for an Eagles outtake (“Late Night Pilgrim”). Vivid, distinctly southern vignettes, a la the slower moments of Bramble Rose, remain (“Laid A Highway” is the most bittersweet song about a town in decline since Neko Case’s “Thrice All American”), but there’s no shortage of those Saturday-night-moments. On the Stonesy closer “Shadow In The Way”, Merritt sings with a joyous abandon that transcends the formidable backing vocals of the Abrahams Victory Voices Choir (an ensemble including soul and gospel heavyweights Tata Vega, Maxayn Lewis, and Oren, Julia and Maxine Waters).
Such diversity is an asset, observes one of Merritt’s idols, Maria McKee. “In the ’60s and ’70s, people made very eclectic records. And they were genuine. They had different types of songs, and different styles of music, all on one album,” says McKee (whose half-brother, Bryan MacLean, was a guitarist for Love, a band that made precisely those kinds of records). “Tift definitely seems to be influenced by classic rock ‘n’ roll.”
“She’s a really amazing assimilator,” concurs Greg Readling, who played pedal steel, dobro and keyboards with Merritt from 1998 until earlier this year. “In the early days, she went through a phase where most of what she listened to was country-rock. Then she started getting more into old soul, and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s one of her major talents: The ability, as time goes on, to digest different influences, and then let that be reflected in her new songs.”
Merritt was born in Houston, Texas; her family relocated to North Carolina when she was a child, and has remained there. She credits her bibliophile mother, and her father, who was an avid folk musician, with providing a solid early foundation for her artistic pursuits. She sang harmonies with her dad at the piano, and he showed her the first guitar chords she learned. “I got a love of music and words from them,” she says. “They certainly encouraged me to be artistic…if I felt so inclined.”
She did. “I started playing guitar and singing when I was a teenager, but it was something I did alone,” she recalls. Sharing her gifts was not a priority. “I always wanted to be a writer, and I always felt like I had something to say, or questions about the world, or the impulse to communicate. And I was pretty determined to do that. But as far as playing music? It took me a long time to feel comfortable asking for people’s attention.”
Pop radio fare of the day didn’t suit Merritt’s tastes, nor did she feel comfortable trying her hand at punk rock (though the latter’s rebellious character was more in keeping with her spirit). Instead, she found herself drawn to confessional, roots-oriented songwriters. At 19, she began making tentative forays into public performance. “I had some stints trying to play bars and stuff,” she explains, though she didn’t much care for the experience of being a solo act: “I was by myself, I couldn’t drink, and I didn’t know how to handle drunk guys.” So she quit, but continued to write and play at home.
In 1997, while attending the University of North Carolina, she met Zeke Hutchins, a drummer already active in the Triangle music scene (his alternative-rock band Queen Sarah Saturday had a brief major-label tenure). Initially, she was hesitant to let him hear her music. Finally, she gave him a cassette. That weekend, Hutchins set up his drum kit in her kitchen and announced they were forming a band. He’s been her drummer ever since.
With Hutchins’ encouragement, she resumed pursuing music aggressively. Readling was already playing with future Merritt guitarist Dave Wilson when he heard that she was seeking a pedal steel player. “I’d only been playing for about a month, but a friend of a friend encouraged me to go check them out, because he said Zeke was one of his favorite drummers,” Readling recalls. He made the trip out to Merritt’s house in the small country town of Bynum and met the original lineup of the Carbines: Merritt, Hutchins, fiddle player Margaret White, and upright bassist Christopher Thurston. Once he’d heard Merritt, he didn’t require any further convincing: “I was blown away, by her voice and her songs,” he recalls.
Playing with others proved much more to Merritt’s liking. “Starting a band definitely gave me a platform to come into my own,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to ask for people’s attention when you have your posse with you.”
As the Carbines gathered steam, folks in the local scene took notice. “The first time I saw Tift, she was doing a singer-songwriter thing, with a very small band, probably just a bass player and Zeke on drums,” remembers John Howie Jr., singer and guitarist for honky-tonk band the Two Dollar Pistols. Then he heard through the grapevine that she was heading towards more of a traditional country vibe. “The next time I saw her, she showed up at a bar [in Chapel Hill] called the Cave, and she had a pedal steel player, a fiddle player, and standup bass. The Full Monty.”