Tift Merritt – The big picture
In 1998, the Carbines issued a 7-inch single featuring a pair of honky-tonk originals, “Juke Joint Girl” b/w “Cowboy”, on their own Oil Rig imprint. Having already discussed working up some duets — originals and covers — with Howie, Merritt slipped him a tape of the whole “Juke Joint” recording session, which included a version of “Another Man Loved Me Last Night” from Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter LP. “That gave me a pretty good idea of what would work with her vocally,” says Howie.
Howie compiled a tape of his own, with songs he thought might suit them as a duo act. “I definitely was hearing a little bit of Dolly Parton coming out of her at that point,” he recalls, “so the first thing I picked was ‘Just Someone I Used To Know’, the Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton song.” He also gave her George Jones and Melba Montgomery’s “Suppose Tonight Would Be Our Last”, as well as duets by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells, and others. Merritt picked the songs she liked, nixed others, and made some suggestions of her own, most notably “One Paper Kid” from Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town, one of her favorite albums.
Despite the displays of Merritt’s talents he’d already witnessed, Howie was startled at their first rehearsal together. “I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with harmony singing at that point,” he admits. “But she immediately got a good grasp of the way I sing, my phrasing, really quickly. It was an incredibly natural thing.”
After a couple shows with Merritt joining Howie and the Pistols, in early 1999 Yep Roc Records offered a deal for a duets disc. With that offer on the table, the two set to penning some originals to round out their program; they had other numbers in their repertoire, but lighter fare such as the Bobby Bare/Skeeter Davis ditty “My Husband, Your Wife” seemed best saved for the stage show. Composing together wouldn’t prove as effortless as singing, but even at this early stage in her career, Merritt was a perfectionist. “Incredibly self-critical, and very, very meticulous about her writing,” is how Howie summarizes her work ethic.
Two of their co-writes, “If Only You Were Mine” and “Counting The Hours”, made it to their self-titled disc released that autumn. Featuring plenty of pedal steel from Readling, the seven-song EP — which also features an rendition of Charley Pride’s “(I’m So) Afraid Of Losing You Again”) — remains the most straight-up country offering Merritt has made, partly because of Howie’s involvement. “Back then, I had a very strict idea of what country music should sound like,” he acknowledges. “There had to be fiddle and pedal steel…no concessions to modernity. And I’m not sure that was ever really her thing. Tift was always coming at it from a much broader base than I was.”
Although the EP received good notices, both parties knew their partnership would be short-lived. “By the time it came out, we were both itching to go back to doing our own things,” Howie says. But project benefited both camps: The Pistols were offered a big tour with Southern Culture On The Skids, while the Carbines began landing more and better gigs.
The following year turned out to be a watershed for Merritt. Her band made its first appearance at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, in March 2000; a month later, she won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest 2000 with her original “Blue Motel” (a song that has yet to turn up on any of her records). One of the contest’s judges, Jim Lauderdale, tipped off manager Frank Callari (Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams) to Merritt’s talents. Merritt was familiar with his client roster, and felt confident he would appreciate her music and protect her vision.
Callari, who eventually wound up as an executive at Lost Highway, convinced the emerging label’s parent company, Mercury Records, to finance some demos. Late that year, the Carbines entered the studio with North Carolina mainstay Chris Stamey producing. Although they committed over a dozen tunes to tape, including five that would resurface on Bramble Rose, the Stamey sessions remain unreleased.
Lost Highway signed Merritt as a solo artist, but she insisted on retaining her backing band — by then comprised of Readling, Hutchins and bassist Jay Brown (who joined in 2000) — for Bramble Rose. They recorded in Los Angeles with producer Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Rufus Wainwright), who also served as lead guitarist on the sessions. Although Readling remembers the overall experience fondly, it was an eye-opener, too. “Stamey always made it a point to make everybody in the band feel comfortable,” he says. “And in that sense, it was a little easier on the ego. With Ethan, the focus was on Tift — as it should be.”
“Looking back, we can all see ourselves as having been green, making a major-label record,” he adds. “None of us, except for Zeke, had been playing that long. As a band, we were pretty young. We learned a lot in the studio, and certainly went to the next level after the experience.”
Released in June 2002, Bramble Rose garnered comparisons to early classics by roots icons such as Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt. Although the performances by the Carbines, augmented by Johns and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, sound plenty confident, it was Merritt’s vocals that leapt out and seized listeners. With its balance of sorrow and sweetness, her voice is mercurial, yet never affected, through the disc’s eleven originals. She sounds bruised yet seductive on the haunting opener, “Trouble Over Me”, then knowingly confrontational on the rousing “Neighborhood”.
Bramble Rose sold modestly — in the tens of thousands, but not the hundreds of thousands required to make a solid impression at the major-label level. It did receive strong reviews, and earned the band an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. “I was grateful and thrilled by the good press that Bramble Rose got,” Merritt says. “But I think the long and short of it is you’re in a band, and you’re trying to make music, and that’s where your energy, and your mind, belong. The rest of it facilitates keeping that going, not the other way around.”
Once she finally got off the promotional merry-go-round for Bramble Rose, Merritt set to writing the follow-up. “You don’t want to be pulling stuff from your backlog,” she insists. “I’m pretty adamant about moving forward. No question, I worked on writing this record for a long time, and very intensely.”
When her colleagues talk about Merritt, certain words pop up repeatedly. “Focused.” “Meticulous.” This seems particularly true of her writing process. “Once I get the music figured out, I spend a lot of time on the lyrics,” she says. “Sometimes they hang around forever, sometimes they come easy. ‘Laid A Highway’ was very natural; it just happened. And then others? I probably worked on the third verse of ‘Good Hearted Man’ for a month.”