Like that “overnight success” story about the singer who suddenly made it big — after ten years of toiling in clubs — one journalist recently wrote, “Tift Merritt seemingly came out of nowhere in 2002 . . .”
Merritt has indeed been playing small clubs in North Carolina and learning her craft, though not quite for a decade. But one reason that writer likely made such a pronouncement is because unlike most “new” artists, Tift Merritt comes to us a fully-formed creative force; she demonstrates songwriting skill on par with much older, more seasoned artists, and possesses a mature and expressive voice. It helps, too, that her Lost Highway debut, Bramble Rose, is astonishingly good.
Comparisons to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris have already been drawn, though unlike those two influential interpreters, the 27-year-old Merritt sings her own songs. In fact, she wrote every cut on the rootsy Bramble Rose, and counts Eudora Welty as much of an influence as Bob Dylan.
Though she grew up wanting to be a writer, Merritt’s father’s influence as a “Saturday musician” planted a seed. On the weekends, he’d play Otis Redding on guitar or piano and enlist his daughter to sing with him. Then they’d drive around and listen to Dolly Parton.
Merritt studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and won awards for her short stories. After trading prose for music, Merritt again gained honors by winning the 2000 Chris Austin songwriting contest at North Carolina’s MerleFest. acoustic music festival.
“That really changed things for me,” she says. Merritt met several Nashville songwriters and industry types, including Frank Callari, who became her manager and ultimately got her the record deal. In 2001, Merritt and her band went to L.A.’s Sound Factory with producer Ethan Johns to record Bramble Rose. “It was like camp,” she says with a laugh.
Tift Merritt revels in the label’s confidence of letting her do her record her way. “I just think it’s remarkable that they gave me the same [respect] they’ve given their other great artists, because I am just proving myself.”
With Tift Merritt, the proof is in Bramble Rose.