Tift Merritt: A Heel Of a Singer

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

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").

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 so much ," 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.

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