Barnstormer

Tift Merritt breaks through with an impressive album and an even more impressive Grammy nomination

Despite the award's legendary meaninglessness, being nominated for a Grammy can throw anyone for a loop. Suddenly, folks who would never give your record a look give it multiple listens; music-biz creeps start sniffing around, hungry for opportunity; forgotten high school chums emerge from the woodwork in search of a little of your surplus shine. As the dark-horse nominee in next month's race for Best Country Album (alongside commercial powerhouses Tim McGraw and Keith Urban, New Nashville upstart Gretchen Wilson and Old Nashville doyenne Loretta Lynn), alt-country firebrand Tift Merritt is trying not to sweat the situation.

"It's been a very happy month around my house," Merritt says on the phone from her home in North Carolina a few days before hitting the road for a month of shows throughout the United States. The singer's preferred stress-relieving method? Ignorance. "I didn't even know the nominations were coming out," she says. "I opened my e-mail, and there were all these e-mails that said 'Grammy,' and I thought, 'Oh, someone I know must have been nominated!'" She laughs. "I was shocked. I didn't expect it all."

She shouldn't have, really. Considering the Grammy committee's insane taste (this year's nominees for Best Rock Instrumental Performance include Rush, Steve Vai and...Brian Wilson?), it's a minor miracle they chose to honor Tambourine, Merritt's second album. But the record deserves it. An impressive leap beyond the genteel alt-country confessionals of her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose, Tambourine is a full-on country-soul barnstormer that finds Merritt entering the aesthetic realm of headstrong ladies like Dusty Springfield and Shelby Lynne.

Country-soul newcomer Tift Merritt is a little Dusty Springfield, a little Shelby Lynne--and a little startled by her sudden ascension among country music's elite Grammy nominees.
Country-soul newcomer Tift Merritt is a little Dusty Springfield, a little Shelby Lynne--and a little startled by her sudden ascension among country music's elite Grammy nominees.

Most of the attention paid the record so far has centered on the arrangements, which merit the talk--lush guitars, thick vocal harmonies, creamy organs and bright horn charts. Producer George Drakoulias, an industry vet who's done great work with The Black Crowes and Maria McKee, preserves the warmth of his session guys' playing--especially that of lead guitarist Mike Campbell, on loan from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers.

But it's not as though the rich arrangements are dressing up cold hunks of dead meat. Merritt's songs on Tambourine are filled with potent imagery that lends her accounts of romantic yearning real weight--the "ashes and silver worn into your hands" in "Stray Paper," or the "ribbon in my hair" in "Still Pretending." It's familiar stuff, but Merritt illuminates the material's corners. And her singing is a fine thing, a kind of mellow, twangy Chrissie Hynde rasp that rubs defiance and regret against each other.

Merritt makes no bones about the importance she placed on making the album with Drakoulias. "He's my dream producer," she says. "I've wanted to work with him for as long as I can remember, and my manager and Lisa Robinson from Vanity Fair really helped burn my name in his ear. He said he was interested, and we talked on the phone, and we spent some time in L.A. He's a wonderful person."

The singer already had the album's concept in her mind when they met. "After being on the road with Bramble Rose and playing live every night, I really wanted to make sure when I went in the studio this time that I did everything I could to capture that sense of joy and abandon that we were able to achieve live," she explains. "Not so much making a live record, but just to have that palpable energy. I wanted to make sure the songs I wrote were honest and sincere but in a way that was loud."

Merritt herself gets loud when I ask how she managed to gel with Drakoulias and the musicians who play on the album in a relatively short amount of time. She estimates that tracking Tambourine took about a week and a half, yet the music has the lived-in feel of bands who've been playing together for years. To most humans, this is known as a compliment.

"Are you trying to ask me if they were nice to me?" Merritt asks, suddenly suspicious.

Um, no, I reply.

"Was it a cold and calculated process?" she continues. "No. All of these people are passionate about playing music, and they were kind enough to come out and play the songs that I had written. They're great players; that's their job. They're musicians."

Perhaps this is how the Grammy nomination is affecting Merritt. She is, after all, a relative unknown in a field of industry heavyweights, and Tambourine is inarguably the product of a collaboration between her and another set of music-biz veterans--just like 99 percent of the albums released by major labels in this country every Tuesday. I hadn't thought of doubting Merritt's place in the making of her own record, but who knows? Maybe the guy who called her before me did.

"They didn't tape me up and put me in the corner," she says, laughing, of Campbell and other threatening alt-country thugs like bespectacled Jayhawks member Gary Louris, chamberlin virtuoso Patrick Warren and the four-piece backing chorus known as the Good Hearted Women Singers. "Does it take courage? Of course it does. Does it take being able to open your mouth around strangers? Yes. Was I scared sometimes? For sure. But I would be scared if I had my three closest friends go in with me. There's definitely a little bit of 'Oh, God, here's the big moment where we make a record.'"

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