When early booster Ryan Adams brought North Carolina alt-country band the Carbines to the attention of the recording industry, the suits liked what they saw. They especially liked the band’s pretty, honey-throated vocalist with the unusual name. The Carbines were given a one-way ticket to New Bohemia and the solo career of Tift Merritt was launched. Merritt mines the same vein of Americana music as Lucinda Williams and Kathleen Edwards, but possesses sweeter pop instincts and the purest, most angelic voice of the three.
Produced by Adams cohort Ethan Johns, Bramble Rose introduces a powerful vocalist and songwriter, hitting a triple right off the bat with the excellent “Trouble Over Me” (the chorus of which perhaps echoes the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” a little too closely), the even better “Virginia, No One Can Warn You” (one of the finest songs in the alt-country genre and a minor hit on Country Music Television) and the Stones-y “Neighborhood.” The title track, “Supposed to Make You Happy” and “Are You Still In Love With Me” are classic country weepers, while “Diamond Shoes” and “I Know Him Too” are upbeat, twangy country-rock. An impressive disc that sets the bar high for the follow-up.
Tambourine clears that hurdle with room to spare. Producer by George Drakoulias (Jayhawks, Maria McKee) adds Southern R&B to the mix, toughening up the sound and, on songs like “Good Hearted Man” and the horn-driven “Your Love Made a U-Turn,” threatening to reveal Merritt as a first-rate soul singer. “Stray Paper” has one of Merritt’s best vocal performances and a killer hook, while “Wait It Out” is one of the toughest rock songs she’s recorded. A great record, Tambourine scored an unexpected and gratifying Grammy nomination for Country Album of the Year.
Home Is Loud was recorded live at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Merritt and band are in good form throughout, especially on a version of “Write My Ticket,” which obliterates Tambourine‘s studio version. Well worth tracking down.
Merritt’s recorded debut was an EP of duets with Chapel Hill honky-tonkers Two Dollar Pistols, whose vocalist John Howie Junior has a drawl which mixes nicely with Merritt’s sweet trill. Singing tunes by Charley Pride, George Jones and Willie Nelson, Merritt and Howie make a convincing case for themselves as a latter-day Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.
Although it was billed as something of a departure, even the most dedicated listener would be hard-pressed to hear anything in Another Country‘s mix of country and soul that was not on Merritt’s earlier releases. Admittedly, stories about Merritt fleeing to Paris to reassess her life and career make for better copy than “another Tift Merritt record,” even if the quality here is esteemably high. Helmed again by Drakoulis, the album finds Merritt in lovely voice throughout. While the single “Broken,” “Something to Me” and the beautiful “Keep You Happy” are particularly fine, Merritt’s high standards of composition and performance are evident throughout.