Tift Merritt: Coffee Talk With The Compass Rose
Plodding through the showering rain and mud pocked holes during the final day of MerleFest, I discover the genuineness of Tift Merritt the voice before I even meet Tift Merritt the person.
“Hi Matt, its Tift,” she greets me over the phone, in her softly curious Southern drawl, Texan from birth with roots grown along Tobacco Road in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I just wanted to see if we could talk where it’s not flooding. Is that okay with you?”
Minutes later we meet out in the rain and take shelter nearby in the festival’s artist’s lounge, a converted event tent complete with carpeted floor and sofas, high and dry from the April showers outside. She pours us both a cup of freshly brewed coffee and we claim the last solitary real estate to hear ourselves talk – and today a modest folding table in the corner will have to do.
Merritt,38, is radiant and disarmingly polite, witty and underneath strawberry blonde locks, naturally beautiful. She is fully in the moment, which makes her even more admirable. With her indelible curiosity and perception of the world around her, as a singer-songwriter Merritt has carved a unique path through endless country music subgenres to play the music she needs to play and sing the lyrics she needs to sing, all along building up a discography over the past decade that rivals anyone that has flown the banner of country music.
She is in the middle of touring Traveling Alone, her fifth studio release, in addition to playing select dates in support of Night, a collaborative album with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein released earlier this year.
Merritt pursued creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she also met her future husband, drummer Zeke Hutchins, in the fall of 1997. Merritt and Hutchins formed The Carbines, Merritt also sharing stages and an EP with The Two Dollar Pistols, and in the years that followed she has gone from a North Carolina darling playing venerable haunts such as Cat’s Cradle and The Cave to worldwide acclaim, releasing 7 highly-rated albums, booking international gigs, playing before televised national audiences and headlining festivals such as MerleFest.
This particular festival remains a special place for Merritt. In 2000, Merritt won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest, which jumpstarted her career, signing a contract with Lost Highway Records. “There are a lot of reasons that are really personal that I love this festival,” Merritt says, “but it’s so important to me being from North Carolina. I learned how to tell stories from growing up in North Carolina, I learned about music, and I was so lucky to grow up in a place that had such a rich tradition of music that I can say I’m a part of. I think that’s really important, to recognize that you are in the flow of a stream that’s coming through a place, and I love that.”
“As a musician, or a writer, your career takes so many small steps along the way,” Merritt continues, “and I can come back to MerleFest and see all of those places that we’ve been, in the times that we’ve come here and performed. Be it, I performed here right before I made my first record, I got my start here, I remember the first time I played on the main stage. You know, today, even in the rain, it feels very much like coming home.”
Born in Houston but raised in Raleigh, Merritt learned music from her father and his eclectic taste of numerous genres of music from roots to country to folk, studying guitar chords and the piano along the way. Her influences range from Southern writer Eudora Welty to musicians Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris, among others. The divine characteristic these artists shared struck a major chord with Merritt.
“I’m such a fan of these people that have made their own way,” Merritt admits. “I hold dear a lot of creative Southern women, who I find are not only beautiful artists but really beautiful people, and I think that’s a big component of making your own way, and no less important. And I don’t know exactly why country music is a place where that really intertwines, but I think of so many of my heroes like Kitty Wells, or Skeeter Davis, or Emmylou, and the way that they told stories and held themselves with a lot of depth and dignity.”
For her ambitious 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, Merritt was immediately embraced by the alt-country-rock scene for her songwriting and guitar work as much as her heartfelt vocals. Getting her start in country music gave Merritt the platform she needed to begin a path of discovery through music, even if that’s a lifelong journey. “When I was starting out (country music) was the first place I could identify myself in the music industry,” Merritt says. “And then your world and your heart and eyes can just keep opening and keep opening and you find other places in yourself and you grow and learn. Who influenced your heroes, and you go deeper, and you find new things, and you know, it’s just…it’s good to be alive,” she says, with hearty laughter.
Following Bramble Rose came Tambourine, which earned Merritt a 2004 Grammy nomination for Country Album of the Year. After extensive touring on Tambourine, Merritt needed a respite. She found such a getaway in Paris, and with a piano in a rented apartment, ended up writing the material for Another Country, her third studio release, in 2008. On Another Country, Merritt charted out a poetic course of bridging love between two people across vast distances, each aware and understanding of the reward should they fulfill the quest they started with their hearts. Merritt released her fourth studio album See You On the Moon in 2010, an outpouring of emotional honesty with nothing left to hide. She also has a pair of live albums to her credit, Home is Loud, and Buckingham Solo.
Her latest studio effort Traveling Alone, released in 2012, is another tightly written collection of country rock ballads, her first under the Yep Roc label. Merritt continues her introspective, if not romantic, account of the road less traveled at a time when she was without a manager and record label. The album fully embraces her backing band, notably Eric Haywood on pedal steel, guitarist Marc Ribot, bassist Jay Brown, multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger and John Convertino on drums. Also making a cameo is Andrew Bird, with whom Merritt has joined on recent tours.
Merritt’s background in creative writing has made her one of the rare artists in music whose albums are comprised of songs as short stories that stand on their own. “Thank you for taking time to even notice that,” Merritt says. “You know, I don’t know that it’s ever made the music industry an easy place for me to live in, but I don’t know that’s that important.”
“What has always been most important to me,” Merritt continues, “was being a writer over the course of my lifetime and wherever that would take me, and making work that had a real point of view. And that at some point had a lot of me in it, but at some point stood up and walked on its own. And certainly make a lot of work that doesn’t do that, but that’s part of it, and that doesn’t leave my house. But, you know, I spend a lot of time thinking about that, so I really appreciate that you spent some time thinking about it, too.”