Tift Merritt may be nominated for a Grammy for her album Tambourine and have a new cross-country tour starting in two weeks, but her mind's elsewhere the day before New Year's Eve.
"I've got 20 people coming over for dinner tomorrow night, band members, good friends, neighbors," she says. "I'm actually talking to you from the parking lot of a seafood market."
Slaving over a hot stove hardly seems the typical lifestyle of a Grammy nominee -- especially one with glossy, made-to-look-like-Sheryl Crow press photos -- but come to think of it, fellow Best Country Album nominee Loretta Lynn has been in Crisco commercials. Merritt seems genuinely amazed to be grouped in such company as Lynn, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban and new "Redneck Woman" country sensation Gretchen Wilson.
"You can't imagine how shocked I was when I heard the album was nominated," she says. "It's such an honor and a thrill to be in that list." She jokingly describes her upcoming tour as "our drive to the Grammys."
Merritt's musical career began at the University of North Carolina, where she lived in the tiny burg of Bynum while pursuing a creative writing degree. Only six hours short of her diploma, she put her education "on hiatus" to concentrate on her budding musical career, and she now lives near the beach south of Wilmington, where she also indulges another, newer passion: surfing.
But Merritt's earliest roots are in Houston. She was born here, and her father, an enthusiastic folk musician who got her interested in guitar as a teenager, was also a Houston native. She mentions her old hometown in the opening lines of "Stray Paper," the first song on Tambourine: "I got a postcard with no address / a picture of Houston in a beat-up mess." In 1998, she released her first seven-inch with her band the Carbines on her own Oil Rig label.
"My grandfather was a Texan, and my dad talked about him a lot," she says. "I only know about him through stories and photographs, but he's my mental vision of what it means to be a Texan, kinda bigger than life."
Merritt grew up surrounded by books and words (brother George is a reporter for the Denver Post) and music. She learned to sing by harmonizing with her father at the piano.
"Music was just something personal for me," says Merritt, "something I kept pretty private until I got to UNC." She tried the solo folk thing for a short time but wasn't comfortable as an underage kid around bar crowds. But she eventually fell in with other musicians around the UNC campus and formed the Carbines with drummer Zeke Hutchins. She also got to know local honky-tonk writer and singer John Howie (now the front man for Two Dollar Pistols), and in 2000, her seven-song EP of duets with him brought her to the attention of David Menconi of the Raleigh News and Observer.
"The first I heard of Tift was a tape with demos and her first single, 'Juke Joint Girl,' " says Menconi. "Right away, it was obvious that she was really good, lots better than most of the early rough stuff I hear out of the blue. I think the first time I actually saw her was 1998, not long after the Carbines got going. They were like most fledgling bands, going through the usual growing pains, but Tift was obviously a star in the making, and she has only gotten better since then. She's always had a work ethic that puts most songwriters to shame, and she's been able to balance the craven ambition you need to get somewhere in the music biz with simple human decency -- a rare combination."
After winning the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest 2000, Merritt hooked up with Frank Callari, who was managing Lauderdale, Ryan Adams and several other notable roots acts. Shortly thereafter, Callari took an executive position with Mercury Records boutique label Lost Highway, and Merritt suddenly found herself on the fast track. Lost Highway arranged for her to record in Los Angeles with producer Ethan Johns and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench augmenting her band. At 45,000 copies, Bramble Rose wasn't a huge commercial success, but it got plenty of critical attention and brought Merritt favorable comparisons with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
But it's her second Lost Highway album, Tambourine, that's shoved Merritt into the national spotlight. It seems Lost Highway took no chances with Merritt's second outing, which features an all-star team of studio ringers such as Mike Campbell and Tench from Tom Petty's band, steel guitar maniac Robert Randolph, ace drummer Don Heffington, Jayhawk Gary Louris, Merritt's teen hero Maria McKee and even a full gospel choir. Produced by George Drakoulias (Black Crowes, Tom Petty, Jayhawks), Tambourine is often-horn-driven blue-eyed soul with a high energy level. Where Bramble Rose was essentially a conventional country rock record, Tambourine sounds more like Memphis or L.A. than Nashville, and it has more in common with the bluesy, sultry side of Dusty Springfield or the emotional pop soul of Carole King than it does with Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette. "Good Hearted Man," the current Merritt CMT video, sounds more like an obscure '70s track from the Carole King catalog than anything we might describe as country music.
Tambourine has only nominal nods toward country in a couple of tracks, and Merritt repeats throughout our conversation that she has a "great rock and roll band" while expounding knowledgeably about Van Morrison, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield. But she won't entertain the irony that her least country effort is nominated in the Best Country Album category or engage in any discussion about the absurdities that abound in today's genre classifications and marketing niches.
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"To me, someone like Ray Charles was such a visionary," says Merritt. "He saw that gospel and blues were coming from the same musical well, had similar chord structures and stylistic traits. Then he just turns the world upside down by making a country record that's as great as anything else he ever did. I think he could do that because he understood that it's all just very earthy music coming from a place of similar inspiration." She adds, "I try to make sure my songs will stand up whether it's just a stripped-down acoustic singer-songwriter presentation, a basic four-piece band or a larger ensemble that includes horns or keys."
So what does a Grammy nominee serve 20 dinner guests on New Year's Eve?
"Shrimp and grits. It's a North Carolina thing."
Now that sounds country.