An hour or so into her July 2002 show at Atlanta’s Smith’s Olde Bar, Tift Merritt puts down her battered Guild acoustic, picks up a tambourine and saunters to the mic. Stage left, Greg Readling swivels from pedal steel to Wurlitzer, easing Merritt’s five-piece backing band, The Carbines, into “Ghetto,” an old Delaney & Bonnie tune. By the time the group reaches the song’s gospel crescendo, the crowd has joined the songstress in a hand-clapping, foot-stomping celebration.
The cover revealed a soulful side of Merritt lurking below the surface of Bramble Rose, her self-assured debut that earned a spot on many 2002 best-of lists for its blend of Appalachian vulnerability and juke-joint sass. But while she counts Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and other leading ladies of country rock as major influences (and fans), Merritt found herself constantly digging into her R&B record collection while on the road. The Texas-born, North Carolina-bred 27-year-old was really feeling the rotation so she decided to take the band through “Ghetto” on a stormy New Orleans evening.
“A hurricane was on its way that night,” recalls Merritt, who’s just finished an early morning surf outside her new home on the North Carolina coast, “so hardly anyone came out to our show because they were all home boarding up their windows. I remember at the end of the song … feeling so good to be completely uninhibited onstage and saying to the audience, ‘You have to throw down with me.’”
On paper, Merritt’s career looks carefully calculated, though she insists she never thought she could cut it as a professional musician. “Growing up, I wanted to write short stories and novels, but I didn’t think I was any good at this singing stuff,” she laughs.
Since picking up the pen and guitar, Merritt has made a series of sound business decisions; she plans to be in the game a while, she explains, so she’s not in a big hurry. “I want to make a handful of records that really knock people’s socks off. I think it’s very important to take the time to make something great.”
“I’m a reviser, a perfectionist,” she says, describing her songwriting approach. “If it’s not right, it’s worth waiting for. I think a lot of times as a writer, you feel like what you’re working on has to be the most important thing to you at the time. But some songs fall away quickly, and others not so quickly. The special ones tend to hang around.”
This grounded mindset has served as Merritt’s compass since high school. Determined to navigate life on her own terms, she didn’t head straight to college. Instead, she spent a few years waiting tables and moving around the country with her dog, Lucy, eventually landing in New York, where she cut a demo and logged some time a studio backup singer.
Merritt returned to the South in the fall of 1997, enrolling in a creative-writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She had a class with fellow musician Zeke Hutchins, who, a day after hearing a tape of her earlier songs, showed up at her apartment with a drum kit and a stack of old records. He told her she’d better get used to playing live, because they were starting a band.
The Carbines assembled gradually over the next year, adding a layer of frayed country with each new member. Readling brought dobro, steel guitar and keys to the ensemble, and bassist Jay Brown later introduced rich harmony vocals to the fold just before the band’s first appearance at SXSW. Momentum built — and label offers began to trickle in — though it would be a while before the group entered the studio.
Despite the early buzz, Merritt and Co. insisted on preserving a deliberate pace. The longer they waited, they thought, the better they’d sound on record. Playing shows would make them tighter, and tighter gigs would lead to bigger crowds in Carolina’s twang-friendly Triangle area, which had already spawned Whiskeytown and The Backsliders. A deal with Sugar Hill fell through at the last minute, but Merritt didn’t fret; she decided to hang onto her cards.
In 1999, a small newspaper hired Merritt to photograph Lucinda Williams and Jim Lauderdale at MerleFest, Doc Watson’s annual bluegrass/Americana festival in Wilkesboro, N.C. Her press pass gave her access to the backstage area, where she mingled with future contemporaries like Gillian Welch and then returned home inspired to write.
The following year Merritt gigged hard, both with the band and solo, anxious for exposure outside the Raleigh area. She returned to MerleFest that spring as a performer, entering the festival’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest — the same showcase Welch won in 1993.
Merritt wowed the panel of judges — which included Welch and Lauderdale — with “Blue Motel,” a song she’d recorded as a demo for Mercury, and things began take off. Frank Callari, who managed Williams, Lauderdale and rising star Ryan Adams, was on hand to catch her set. Her performance validated what fellow North Carolinian Adams had been preaching for months (he’d later bring Merritt along to open the West Coast leg of his solo Heartbreaker tour). Callari officially agreed to take the emerging artist under his wing.
“MerleFest is definitely where the match was lit,” Merritt recalls with a smile I can hear through the phone.
Her good-luck dominos kept falling six months later, when Callari teamed with Luke Lewis to start Lost Highway. The Universal outpost quickly recruited an all-star cadre of Americana mavericks that included Adams, Williams, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and The Jayhawks, and eventually released the enormously successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Bluegrass, folk and roots music were red-hot; Merritt’s debut for the label couldn’t have come at a better time. But though the Ethan Johns-produced Bramble Rose drew glowing reviews in publications ranging from The New Yorker to Time — plus a late nod in Nick Hornby’s Songbook — it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. Still, Lost Highway seems to have patiently kept Merritt on the old-fashioned artist development track.
Merritt’s creative gears shifted a bit since Bramble Rose, and she wanted to channel the stage vigor toward her next release. “I knew I wanted to make an album I could take on the road and perform like wide-open church,” she says. “I was thinking Prince and [Joe Cocker’s] Mad Dogs & Englishmen … something with lots of energy and a bunch of people onstage.”
Lost Highway brought in producer George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, The Jayhawks, Tom Petty) to oversee the sessions for the follow-up, which Merritt appropriately titled Tambourine. Drakoulias recruited a crew of all-star musicians to back Merritt, including Heartbreakers Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, pedal-steel messiah Robert Randolph, Maria McKee and Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris. A horn section and nine-member gospel choir also helped make Merritt’s vision a reality.
“In a lot of ways, this was a do-or-die record, so it certainly took a lot of pressure off me to be in the hands of such veterans,” explains Merritt. “I’ve wanted to work with George since before I got my first gig, so the sessions were nothing short of a dream come true. He brought all of these great musicians in the room and created this cool soul-country-rock sound, which was just what I wanted. … I’m still taking in the feeling of having made a record with my heroes.”
Merritt describes Tambourine as a “much tougher, but much more fun, record to sing.” Her malleable soprano soars with Southern bravado on most tracks, but is restrained on the wistful “The Plainest Thing” and “Laid a Highway.” The album warms up with the front-porch strum of “Stray Paper,” before taking it up a notch with the smoky “Good Hearted Man” and one of the album’s finest cuts, “Write My Ticket.” She knocks out the racy “I Am Your Tambourine” and “Shadow in the Way,” a raucous revival of a final track.
“Of all the songs on the record, I think I’m most thrilled with that one,” she says enthusiastically. “I really wanted it to work, but I wasn’t sure it was going to. When we were putting the basic track down, we knew we wanted to take it in a very gospel direction. The band would get me to start singing by introducing me as if I was singing in a half-empty club. Late one night I’d recorded this really over-the-top vocal and, at the end, everyone was cheering, clapping and laughing at me. So when the choir got there, they just joined in.”
Merritt knew right away she had her closer: “When you get that many people singing in the room, that’s pretty hard to top.”
With plans to spend the rest of 2004 touring, she’ll have a chance to see if she can get audiences responding the same way. For Merritt, the time has come to throw down.