"I really didn't imagine that people would pay to come see me sing. You can't really presume that. I always really loved music, I just thought it was more realistic to be a writer," says Merritt.
Meritt's father was a big influence on her musically. A folk enthusiast, his passion for music served as a spur to her.
"He was sort of a Saturday musician. He played guitar and piano by ear and would call me in to sing harmony," she recalls. "I adored it, but I didn't have enough confidence in my musical work to even consider making a life out of it."
But while attending the University of North Carolina and going through the writing program, she passed a tape of her music to drummer Zeke Hutchins. He set up his drums in her kitchen the very next weekend, and announced they were starting a band. They began playing and recorded a 7" single with a pair of honky-tonk originals, which Merritt followed up with an album of duets with Two Dollar Pistols frontman John Howie, Jr. in 1999. It was a huge success in the region and substantially raised her profile locally. The following year, she would perform at South by Southwest and a month later she won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest with her song, "Blue Motel." (Previous winners include Gillian Welch, David Via and Michael Reno Harrell.) This opened even more doors for Merritt and her backing band, The Carbines.
"Merlefest is pretty much the first time that people in Nashville took notice of me. And that's how I got my first manager [Frank Callari], and he was eventually one of the founders of Lost Highway," says Merritt.
Callari, who already had another talented Triangle-based alt-country musician in his stable (Ryan Adams), was tipped off to Merritt's talent by his friend, musician Jim Lauderdale, who was a judge at Merlefest. When Callari became involved with Lost Highway, he convinced the incipient label's parent, Mercury Records, to finance some demos with Chris Stamey. While none of the songs from that session have ever seen the light of day, five of the tracks would reappear on Merritt's 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, which she recorded several months later with producer Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams).
The album established Merritt as one of the bright new lights on the alt-country scene with a stunning, stirring voice that's been compared to the aching acquiescence of country stars Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. It was a critical success, though its sales figures were very modest. Back from her promotional tour for the album, Merritt began writing intensely, and soon moved to the Outer Banks to finish up writing the album.
Working around her newfound interest in surfing, Merritt penned the dozen tracks for her follow-up, Tambourine. While Merritt's prior work had been steeped in traditional country, the new album reveals a harder rocking side of the band, and Merritt dips deeply into the sound of soul and R&B.
She recorded the album with producer George Drakoulias, who's worked with the Black Crowes, Jayhawks, Tom Petty and Maria McKee. He's someone Merritt had dreamed of working with since she was 19 and heard McKee's You Gotta Sin To be Saved. As with McKee, Drakoulias helped imbue the album with an echo of those old Stax recordings. He also brought in several artists he'd worked with in the past, including McKee, whom Merritt was ecstatic to work with.
"I got to work with a lot of my heros — George Drakoulias, Maria McKee and [Jayhawks singer] Gary Louris. And it was really kind of humiliating for me," Merritt offers, with a self-deprecating laugh.
But if she was intimidated, she had little reason, as the songs and music from Tambourine amply demonstrate, from the Motown-flavored "Your Love Made A U-Turn," to the hungry blues boogie "I Am Your Tambourine" (with Robert Randolph on steel guitar) and the gospel-tinged "Shadow In the Way." The album was good enough to earn Merritt a Grammy nomination this year. Not bad for someone who only started playing serious six years ago.
"It's all stunning any way you look at it," she says. "I'm just looking forward to having a good time."
Tift Merritt plays the Visulite Theatre Thursday at 9pm. Hotel Lights opens and tickets are $14.