Tift Merritt – Triple Threat
It figures that Tift Merritt is a native Texan. Oh sure, Merritt spent the better part of her formative years in North Carolina, and still lives there. But Houston is where she was actually born in 1975, and where the Merritt family lived — until her mother delivered her father what they refer to in the oil business as a “demand bid.”
“My dad is originally from Texas and tried to take my mom back down there after they married,” Merritt says. “But my mom didn’t like Texas very much. She’d never left North Carolina before, and Texas was his world, not hers. So one day she finally told my dad, ‘I’m going back to North Carolina with your daughter. You can come, too. But whether or not you do, we’re going.'”
Except for the upbeat ending (dad gave in and everyone basically lived happily ever after), that story plays out like one of Merritt’s songs, which tend to be populated by strong-willed women who aren’t shy about speaking their minds or standing their ground. Take, for instance, the protagonist of “Last Time I Lose My Man”, a song that sounds like an old gun ballad: “The whole town thinks we’re wrong/The whole town thinks we’re wild/I won’t let the whole town make up my mind.”
From a philosophical rather than strictly geographical point of view, there’s a great deal of Texas in Merritt’s music. She conjures up a longing that has more to do with Larry McMurtry than William Faulkner, evoking the lower left corner of Dixie — the mythic, mystic, wide-open spaces of the Southwestern frontier, and the hardheaded people who call it home. A century ago, Merritt’s juke-joint-gal onstage persona would have been the soulmate of Lee Marvin’s crusty ne’er-do-well character from the western musical Paint Your Wagon, singing duets of “I Was Born Under A Wandering Star” around the campfire.
Back in contemporary times, Merritt’s first duet partner was actually her father, a ’60s folk enthusiast who would summon her to the piano to sing harmonies on “Dark End Of The Street”. When the teenaged Merritt started playing guitar, her father showed her four chords and advised her not to bother with barre chords. The rest, she figured out more or less on her own through trial and error.
“Growing up, I didn’t like what I was hearing on the radio,” Merritt says. “And I knew I couldn’t sing punk to save my life. But the rootsy stuff, I could play. It felt natural to sing, the songs told a story, it seemed right. I went through a Joni Mitchell phase — and all girls go through a Joni Mitchell phase; if any girl tells you she never did, don’t believe her — and I tried to like indie rock, but I just couldn’t play or sing that. The first time I heard that Mary Lou Lord song, ‘His Indie World’, it was a case of, ‘She feels like I feel.’ There’s nothing more mortifying than not knowing how to tweak your amplifier the same way as the indie boys you’re playing with.”
But Merritt fell in with the right crowd soon enough to become a young woman with enormous potential. Without lapsing too much into the jargon of a football coach assessing a high school running back’s prospects, it’s safe to say Merritt is a legitimate triple-threat. Beyond the aforementioned songwriting skills, her singing is even better — a malleable, drop-dead gorgeous voice that can be brassy like Patsy Cline or soft-spoken like Emmylou Harris. And Merritt isn’t just a pretty face at the microphone; she’s also a terrific guitarist who could get by playing lead guitar in a lot of bands.
Add to that a willingness to obsess over details (“That woman will spend weeks writing one line,” says Merritt’s sometime writing and singing partner John Howie), plus an appropriate amount of ambition, and you have a complete package that requires only seasoning. Barry Poss, president of Sugar Hill Records, certainly thinks so: Merritt is in the process of signing with Sugar Hill, the North Carolina label that is home to a variety of bluegrass acts as well as Lone Star songsmiths such as Terry Allen, Guy Clark and the late Townes Van Zandt.
“It’s a little unusual for us to be interested in someone just starting out,” Poss says of Merritt. “So I was a bit cautious. But after seeing her, I couldn’t get her off my mind. There’s a refreshing literary and lyrical quality to her writing, and her voice has an incredibly lovely and mysterious edge to it. She is also very focused and informed about what it takes to build a career. That level of commitment and maturity is rare and will no doubt help us. She is, after all, a star. We just have to get her there.”
For all this optimism, however, there are also some unsettled aspects to Merritt’s future. She first emerged as the leader of a band, the Carbines. But her band’s status seems somewhat cloudy, because Sugar Hill is signing Merritt and not the Carbines. Merritt vows that, one way or another, she is going to keep her band together and make this work. For now, she’s getting lots and lots of unasked-for advice on how to proceed.