Queen of the road

Raleigh native Tift Merritt still greets the trappings of success with a bit of neurosis. It seems that critical acclaim, a Grammy nomination and an ever-growing fan base have not gone to her head.

In love with day-to-day life: After her last tour, Merritt wondered what to do next. So she went to Paris, and the grocery store. Photo By Tony Nelson

“Hold on a second—I have to make sure I’m not driving my mom crazy … you just always feel like an over-inflated dummy when you are doing these interviews,” confesses Merritt in a recent phone interview.

Although Merritt may feel self-conscious, her talent and charm abound on her latest album, Another Country (Fantasy Records, 2008). The album is a blues, country and soul-drenched offering that’s enough to make any artist proud. But for Merritt, the album came at a cost.

After the touring cycle for Merritt’s Tambourine (Lost Highway, 2004), Merritt found herself at a crossroads—mentally and physically exhausted, and wondering what to do next.

“I felt like I was a bit of a mess when I was done [touring],” she says. “It was the longest tour I had ever done. The tour was amazing and also really grueling because were following [the headliner]‘s bus in our van. So a lot of the times, audiences were seeing the entire show, and we would be on the road until the next gig. It was the longest, but one of the best tours I’ve ever been on.”

To recuperate, Merritt headed from her New York City home to Paris. The trip served as both an artistic shot in the arm for Merritt and a reintroduction to the minutia of daily life.

“To be in Paris was so liberating,” she says. “One of the amazing things about Paris was that it was so far removed from everything, and that was the first time that I’d stopped and slept and taken care of myself. I was in love with the day-to-day life that I hadn’t had in some time. You don’t understand how excited I am to go to the grocery store.”

After Paris, however, came the reality of putting together a new album as well as dealing with the fallout of her success.

The marriage between Merritt and the Lost Highway label worked well enough to garner a Grammy nomination for Country Album of the Year in 2004, but it has also helped foist stereotypes upon Merritt that just aren’t true, the singer insists.

“I don’t resent [the alt-country tag] at all,” she explains. “When you get pigeonholed, I don’t like it, but at least some people know who you are. I’m not going to complain about it. I don’t get frustrated by it. I get frustrated when people call me country. I don’t fit into that mainstream country role at all; it just implies that I’m part of a family that wouldn’t have me.  What I do is a little more handmade and personal.”

The handmade music that Merritt crafts is too quiet for the rock crowd, and not hokey enough for Nashville, but that’s just the way the singer likes it.

“I just don’t think about genre very much,” she says. “Maybe I’d be a smarter woman if I did, but I don’t think so. I just think it’s a very natural progression. Musically you are always learning.”

On this afternoon over tea in her mother’s kitchen, she feels like she’s ready to try touring again.

“[Touring] is physically pretty grueling and I think you live and learn,” she says. “I think there was a lot of scatteredness at that point that might not exist right now, which is good.”

But whatever experiences come her way, fans doubtless will reap the benefits when Merritt crafts her next album—no matter what the genre.

[Jason Bugg is a Sylva-based freelance writer.]

who:  Tift Merritt with Teddy Thompson
what: Country-tinged singer/songwriter
where: The Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.)
when: Friday, Sept. 5. 9 p.m. ($14 in advance, $16 the day of show. www.thegreyeagle.com)


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