A few songs into her performance at the Birchmere on Monday night, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt asked the sound engineer to dial back the reverb on her vocals. “I’m not ever gonna be on ‘American Idol’; I’m a real musician,” she said gently but firmly. “I don’t need to hide.”
No, she certainly doesn’t.
On tour to promote her latest album, “Traveling Alone,” Merritt isn’t literally traveling alone, but rather with a bare-bones band of drummer Tony Leone, guitarist Eric Heywood and bassist Jay Brown. True to the organic, no-overdubs ethos that inspired the new album, the quartet played a 90-minute set of unhurried, reflective songs centered on Merritt’s voice and acoustic guitar. Heywood featured a tasteful repertoire of country-blues licks on electric guitar and pedal steel, while Brown, Merritt’s longtime, unassuming aide-de-camp, added harmony vocals.
The opener, “Sweet Spot,” was a “Thunder Road”-like invitation: “I’ll be waiting for you out front if you want me to / Are you coming, too?” Merritt sang frequently and evocatively of relationships: how they’re reconciled (“All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight”), how they begin (“Spring”), how they end (“Drifted Apart”) and how they’re ruefully recalled (“Stray Paper”). The theme of human connection became heartwarmingly real when she was accompanied by her father, Robin Merritt, on the wistful “Too Soon to Go.”
Merritt’s voice is most often compared with that of folk and country legend Emmylou Harris, but she can also channel the rustic soul of Bobbie Gentry. Moving to piano on songs such as “Small Talk Relations” and “Shadow in the Way” brought out this side of her. The down-tempo “Mixtape” found Merritt paying tribute to the power of music to define shared experiences: “I’ll be making you mix tapes with homemade covers / Analog, to show we’re lovers / So much rock-and-roll love in a plastic case / Play it loudly, see my face.”
Merritt is a throwback — in the best sense of the word. She’s keeping alive the grand tradition of no-frills, confessional American songwriting.
Galupo is a freelance writer.