Born c. 1975 in Raleigh, NC. Addresses: Record company--Lost Highway Records, 54 Music Square East, Ste. 300, Nashville, TN 37203, website: http://www.losthighwayrecords.com. Website--Tift Merritt Official Website: http://www.tiftmerritt.com.
Since the release of her first two albums, singer and songwriter Tift Merritt has drawn favorable comparisons to such illustrious female performers as Lucinda Williams, Dusty Springfield, Sheryl Crow, Janis Joplin, Linda Rondstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and Emmylou Harris. Possessing a voice that travels easily from smoldering folk-country ballads to boisterous soulful rockers, Merritt became a critical darling with the release of her first album, Bramble Rose, in 2002, and broadened her critical and popular support with her 2004 release Tambourine.
Merritt grew up in North Carolina, where she immersed herself in the music of Bob Dylan. In 2000 she worked as an opening act for Ryan Adams, who was touring to support his breakthrough album Heartbreaker. This led Adams to recommend her to his manager, Frank Callari. Callari later became employed by alt-country label Lost Highway, and one of his executive decisions was to add Merritt to the label's roster, which already included such stars as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, the Jayhawks, Adams, and Lucinda Williams. In 2000 Merritt also won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at North Carolina's old-time music festival, MerleFest, organized by Doc Watson and named after his son, Merle Watson.
In 2002 Lost Highway released Merritt's debut album, Bramble Rose. The album was produced by Ethan Johns and featured Johns on lead guitar and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's group the Heartbreakers on piano, celeste and Hammond C-3 organ. All eleven songs on the album were written by Merritt, and featured performances by Merritt's touring band members, including keyboardist and pedal steel player Greg Reading, bassist Jay Brown, and drummer Zeke Hutchins. Standout tracks on the album included the title track, on which Johns contributed mandolin and Tench played harmonium behind a vocal performance by Merritt. On the tour to support the album, Merritt augmented the band with lead guitarist Dave Wilson. Following the release of Bramble Rose Merritt toured extensively, headlining smaller venues and supporting other top-notch talent such as that of Emmylou Harris.
In order to follow up on the critical success of Bramble Rose, Merritt had to keep public and critical expectations in check. While admitting that her debut's success was daunting, Merritt told Country Standard Time interviewer Brian Baker, "I try to keep whatever's driving the train to be something that comes from far within and not something that has to do with extenuating circumstances. ... I really wanted to have a record that had that sense of joy and abandon that performing a really great live show can give you. I wanted to take that feeling to the next level." The record Merritt referred to was her sophomore effort, Tambourine. Featuring guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Jayhawks' pedal steel guitarist Gary Louris, the album was produced by George Drakoulias, who had worked with the Jayhawks, Maria McKee, Tom Petty, and the Black Crowes. The album was a marked departure from her first recording effort. While Bramble Rose blended alt-country and folk music elements, Tambourine revealed Merritt's soul sensibility, inviting comparisons to Dusty Springfield's landmark 1969 blue-eyed soul masterpiece Dusty in Memphis.
Discussing the inspiration for the sound of Tambourine, Merritt told Baker: "I feel like I was more of a grown-up when I turned to that internal place, and maybe I had a little more courage or experience or things to say that were new." She continued: "It's so hard to talk about these mysterious things. Certainly there were influences that were stronger this time. ... I really wanted to handle whatever was going on inside me in ... a way that was not quiet and introspective but was honest in a way that was joyful and open and energetic. And I think that's the difference. I wanted to be soulful in a really loud way, not in a quiet way."
The different approach paid off in critical accolades. According to Boston Herald critic Kevin R. Convey, Merritt "deserves to take the bows for this left-field masterpiece." Convey concluded that Tambourine was one of the "best albums of the year." Merritt wrote all but one of the album's songs, as her version of "Your Love Made a U Turn" was penned by McClinton Osbie Burnett.
In addition to writing, recording, and performing, Merritt has been an outspoken opponent of the Federal Communications Commission's 2003 decision to deregulate radio station ownership. When deregulation occurs, opponents argue, more stations become owned by a limited number of conglomerates. These station owners force programming managers to adhere to rigid music play lists in easily recognizable formats such as classic rock, soft jazz, or urban pop. Thus outside-the-mainstream acts find it increasingly difficult to get their music played on the radio. In March of 2003 Merritt addressed FCC commissioners at a Duke University public hearing, warning that deregulation might prevent her music from being heard by a wider audience. "I don't want to whine," she was quoted in a News & Record (Piedmont Triad, North Carolina) article written by Caroline Lindsey. "I'm much more concerned about the government regulations than me not being on the radio. ... I just think North Carolina has such a rich history of musicians. ... and I feel like the next generation of musicians, the fourth-grade classes, aren't going to have an outlet." Rather than adopt a resigned posture, however, Merritt told Lindsey: "I'm going to be making music my career, whether I'm on the radio or not."
by Bruce Walker
Tift Merritt's Career
Toured as the opening act for Ryan Adams, 2000; released debut album, Bramble Rose, 2002; released second album, Tambourine, 2004.
Tift Merritt's Awards
Winner, Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, 2000.
- Boston Herald, September 19, 2004, p. A14; October 7, 2004, p. O49.
- News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), July 11, 2003, p. D1; July 13, 2003, p. B4.
- "Tift Merritt Rocks the Soul with a 'Tambourine'," Country Standard Time, http://www.countrystandardtime.com/tiftmerrittFEATURE.html (October 12, 2004).