Tift Merritt Looks Outside Herself to Kindle a Spark

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Tift Merritt makes country music for city dwellers, the kinds of songs that NPR adores but Nashville doesn't have much use for anymore. Still, the thirtysomething singer-songwriter managed to score a Best Country Album Grammy nomination for 2004's Tambourine.

But a couple of songs from that record, "Good Hearted Man" and "Your Love Made a U Turn," are so plump with Memphis/Muscle Shoals goodness that we couldn't help but ask her if Merritt has ever thought about making a full-on soul/R&B album.

"I don't think genre is something that you put on like an outfit," she says.

Good to know, then, that soul is something more than just an outfit for her, something closer to her core identity as an artist. Merritt spends a lot of time thinking about such things herself, as the host of The Spark, a monthly radio show and podcast produced via Marfa Public Radio, KRTS-FM way out West Texas way.

On her show, Merritt and her guest (the most recent is eclectic Chicago musician Andrew Bird) explore sometimes hard-to-grasp concepts like "process" and "integrity."

"I find people who are making their own way are very similar, and I think it's important for them to find each other," she says. "I think people who are making unique work are also making unique lives, and I think that's an important conversation to have. So I try to go have that conversation."

Understanding what makes other artists work is fundamental to the show, explains Merritt, whose latest album is (not coincidentally) called Traveling Alone.

"I think it's really important to look beyond yourself, and this is a way for me to [do that]," she says. "I've studied somebody's work and then gosh, I get to go meet them, and be in their presence and think about what they're trying to do, and talk to them about it. It's important for me.

"I started the show because I had a sense of loneliness about that, and I wanted to talk to other artists," she adds. "I really love it."

In our brief conversation, Merritt laughs easily and enthusiastically, and does so here.

"If nobody listened, I'd still do it."

Merritt was actually born in Houston, but moved away young to be closer to her mother's side of the family in North Carolina. Still, she has visited often, many times bringing her dad, a lawyer and "Atticus Finch" type who was raised in the northeast Houston area.

"I would always hear stories about playing in Caney Creek," she says. "And he had this moped that he built himself and would ride all around. That would have been Houston in the '50s, a pretty different place. His father was a wildcatter, so there were stories about that.

"I picture it like James Dean/Giant-era Texas," she laughs.

Tift Merritt plays at 7 and 9:30 p.m. tonight at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, www.mcgonigels.com.

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