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Tift Merritt: A Heel Of a Singer

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page WE06

THE TIFT MERRITT fan club -- mom and dad, her brother and his fiancee, her manager, as well as boyfriend and band drummer Zeke Hutchins -- all traveled to Los Angeles' Staples Center for February's Grammy Awards. The North Carolina contingent hoped that Merritt's recent "Tambourine" might win the Grammy for best country album, though the odds of that happening were pretty long.

After all, the competition included red-hot newcomer Gretchen Wilson, heartthrob Keith Urban, multi-platinum star Tim McGraw and country legend and gender pioneer Loretta Lynn (the eventual winner for the Jack White-produced "Van Lear Rose").

With roots in North Carolina's alt-country music scene, singer-songwriter (and Tar Heel basketball fan) Tift Merritt was nominated for a Grammy this year for her country album "Tambourine." (Roberto D'este)

That award was aired, and CBS ran a snippet from Merritt's "Good Hearted Man" video. At the after party, Merritt met Lynn for the first time, "a pretty neat moment because I'm usually pretty shy about meeting people that I admire. I was thrilled to be introduced to her as a fellow nominee."

Funny thing is Merritt's 2002 solo debut, "Bramble Rose," would probably have better fit the category than "Tambourine." While that first album was clearly in the alt-country mold, "Tambourine" is just a little bit country and a whole lot of South-enriched rock and soul, full of the kind of sounds that used to come out of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and Memphis in the late '60s and early '70s. Songs like "Good Hearted Man," "Your Love Made a U-Turn" and "Ain't Looking Closely" would have fit comfortably on a Dusty Springfield album during her "In Memphis" phase.

"I love Dusty Springfield somuch," Merritt says from a Ford Econoline wending through Oklahoma toward the end of a recent tour opening for Elvis Costello. "I think that I sound like her when I'm hoarse and have been singing a lot."

Or screaming a lot, as Merritt did during North Carolina's recent march to the NCAA men's basketball championship.

Though Texas-born, Merritt has been in and around Raleigh, N.C., for 28 of her 30 years and graduated from the University of North Carolina at nearby Chapel Hill.

"I'm a Tar Heel fan and have always been a Tar Heel fan -- I grew up watching Michael Jordan play at UNC," Merritt declares, noting that the band's van pulled over to the side of the road anytime a North Carolina game was on TV.

As for the team's ultimate triumph, "I was ecstatic, though it was torture," Merritt says. "I was on stage for the second half, so I called my dad and put him on speaker phone and he narrated the end of the game for us and the rest of the audience. They were very patient with our fascination with the game."

The road was a major influence on "Tambourine." Merritt admits that her debut was a tad hushed and introspective, elements that were less dominant as her band toured behind the critically acclaimed album.

"I think 'Tambourine' is an extension of 'Bramble Rose,' not a duplicate," she says. "It's very much the natural growth progression, particularly for anyone who's ever seen me live."

Indeed, Merritt's shows have generally been much more lively, loose and energized, qualities that producer George Drakoulias captured on "Tambourine," which also featured such stellar guests as guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboard player Benmont Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, steel guitar wiz Robert Randolph, former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. The band, not the rival basketball program once headed by North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

"We played in Kansas once, and I gloated that we had won Roy Williams from the Jayhawks. It didn't go over too well," Merritt says, without remorse.

"I wanted to work with George for years and years," says Merritt of the producer known for his work with Petty, the Black Crowes and Lone Justice. "One of the things George is so great at is an ability to make roots records that are at the same time very intense and very emotionally charged. As a performer, that's really exciting, and I wanted to capture that energy in my songs, and I knew he would be able to make that happen.

"And to work with Maria McKee, Gary Louris and Mike Campbell was nothing short of being in a room with my heroes, so to have this record get nominated for a Grammy was a whole lot of icing on the cake. We worked hard and we were rewarded, and I don't know that it always works exactly like that."

Those studio guests won't be supporting Merritt during her two-night stand at the Birchmere's Bandstand this weekend. Instead she'll be bringing Hutchins, who first encouraged Merritt to form a band, the Carbines, after they met in an American studies class in the late '90s; bassist Jay Brown, who's been with her six years; keyboardist Dan Eisenberg; and guitarist Brad Rice.

Two former Carbines, Dave Wilson and Greg Readling, will be performing with opening act Chatham County Line. "They're great," says Merritt, adding, "Dave really needed to front his own band."

Which, incidentally, is not something Merritt was particularly anxious to do even as she was becoming a fixture in North Carolina's alt-country and roots music scenes in the late '90s, guesting with John Howie's Two Dollar Pistols before recalibrating with the Carbines. By 2000, Merritt had won the songwriting contest at the annual Merlefest music festival and No Depression had dubbed her one of "five emerging insurgents on the edge of center stage." Along the way, the Carbines became Tift Merritt and the Carbines and eventually just Tift Merritt.

"From the beginning, Zeke always told me it should just be my name, but I wasn't ready to step up to the plate," says Merritt, who not only sings but writes the material. "Now the way I feel about it, and I think the way the guys feel about it, I'm proud that I sort of grew strong enough to step out in front."

Which is a big improvement from Merritt's first foray into music in 1994. Her father, a lawyer and "closet musician," taught her guitar basics -- "just four chords, said that's all you'll ever need -- G,C, D and A minor, or maybe F." He also always encouraged me "to perform. Like any father, he thought I should be a movie star or whatever I wanted to be."

What Merritt hoped to become was a singer-songwriter in the manner of Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan.

"I was playing bars, by myself, and waiting tables," she recalls. "I was about 19 years old, and I certainly didn't know how to handle drunk guys! I hadn't really found my confidence as a writer, either, so I decided that the smartest thing for me to do would be to retreat a little bit. I realized I was stuck so I went to [UNC] and studied creative writing.

"And I did find my feet in that writing department. I didn't know that was going to happen, I just knew that I didn't want to wait tables."

Merritt says her teachers encouraged her "just to be creative and write whatever I wanted to write, though I was writing short stories and for the most part kept my songs to myself. But one of my teachers was Bland Simpson, a Red Clay Rambler [and creative writing faculty member at North Carolina since 1982]. He and I did some work on my songwriting, and he encouraged me a whole lot."

"Actually, once my band started, some of my teachers would come to my shows."

So did other folks as Merritt began performing around North Carolina's student-rich Triangle region (it's home to Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State universities). Three years ago, Merritt opened for Ryan Adams, who recommended her to his manager, Frank Callari, who signed her up when he became head of A&R at Lost Highway.

While there's a lot of role model Harris in Merritt's crystalline soprano, she can also assume the raspy raggedness of label-mate Lucinda Williams. That quality serves Merritt well on the new album, particularly on the gospel-tinged "I Am Your Tambourine," the roughhouse "Wait It Out" and the rootsy "Late Night Pilgrim" and "Laid a Highway."

At North Carolina, Merritt had won a number of awards for her short stories, and you can sense that craft in the songwriting, particularly in Merritt's ear for dialogue and eye for small detail, her gift for transforming the personal into the universal without making it overly confessional. She may not always have been sure about singing, but Merritt always felt she had something to say.

"The writer in me did have a question about getting on stage and whether that was vain or frivolous," she admits. "But the more I've done it and the more I've been on stage, it's something I enjoy and something I'm good at, so I'm not going to turn that light off."

In fact, shyness has been replaced by confidence, to the point that Merritt participated with seven other young female singers, including Jessi Alexander and Jamie O'Neal, in a foldout cover and pictorial in FHM, a lad mag not known for its coverage of country music. Titled "Country Music's Sexy Stars," the story's headline read "Presenting eight reasons to forgive the musical genre responsible for Garth Brooks, line dancing and Hee Haw."

"They should take a long look because that's the only time that will happen to me," laughs Merritt, who was the most clothed among the aggregation of belly buttons, panties and bras. "I said no a lot, I assure you. It's interesting as a performer to get pushed to your boundaries, and I found them that day!"

TIFT MERRITT -- Appearing Friday and Saturday at the Birchmere. • To hear a free Sound Bite from Tift Merritt, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

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