Tift Merritt rocks the soul with a "Tambourine"

Brian Baker, September 2004

W hat's a girl to do when the reviews for her debut album are as glowing as an ocean sunrise and her very first release winds up in nearly everybody's year end top 10 list? Some girls would panic at the prospect of following up an album with that kind of initial response simply because of the almost unbearable anticipation for the next one.

By virtue of her amazingly textured first album, the country/blues/folk tinged "Bramble Rose," and her sophomore release, the soulfully electric "Tambourine," Tift Merritt is clearly not the kind of artist to be easily rattled by a little good press. Or a lot, for that matter.

"I'm sure that it does have an influence on me, but I try to keep whatever's driving the train to be something that comes from far within and not something that has to do with extenuating circumstances," says Merritt of the effect of Bramble Rose's ecstatic reaction on the creation of "Tambourine."

"I think the main influence that 'Bramble Rose' had on this record was that we were able to tour a lot and be out on the road every night playing, so I really wanted to have a record that had that sense of joy and abandon that performing a really great live show can give you. I wanted to take that feeling to the next level."

If Merritt had merely wanted to replicate the gentle alt.-country/folk singer/songwriter vibe from "Bramble Rose" on her follow up, she would have found very little objection among her numerous and increasingly rabid fans for that particular plan.

But Merritt was uninterested in exploring the same terrain she had just presented on "Bramble Rose," and she was completely energized by her roadwork for the album.

With barely a moment's downtime after the conclusion of the "Bramble Rose" tour, Merritt set to work on the material and sonic ideas that would ultimately find her blending her already potent folk and country roots with an even more potent dash of soul and rock.

Although she recognizes the significant differences between her two albums, Merritt insists her muse and her influences have remained consistent through both works.

"I feel like I was more of a grown-up when I turned to that internal place, and maybe I had a little more courage or experience or things to say that were new," she says.

"It's so hard to talk about these mysterious things. Certainly there were influences that were stronger this time...you know, use more of the red crayon than the blue crayon. I was listening to a lot of Carole King and Dusty Springfield and Delaney and Bonnie, and I wanted to write really great songs and have that sort of throw down feel that Delaney and Bonnie and all their friends have. When you talk in terms of that internal place where you turn to write, I really wanted to handle whatever was going on inside me in such a way that was honest in a way that was not quiet and introspective but was honest in a way that was joyful and open and energetic. And I think that's the difference. I wanted to be soulful in a really loud way, not in a quiet way."

"Tambourine" is most assuredly a work that shows Merritt's extraordinary talent to full effect, from the roots rock thump of "Wait It Out" to the heartland jangle of "Stray Paper" to the searing Stax soul passion of "Good Hearted Man" and the revival-spirited "I Am Your Tambourine" to the bluesy lope of "Still Pretending."On "Your Love Made a U-Turn," Merritt sounds like a joyous cross between Dusty Springfield and Delbert McClinton and follows it immediately with the more familiar heartbreaking country soul of "Plainest Thing," then channels Emmylou Harris on "Laid a Highway."

On "Tambourine," Merritt establishes her comfort and ability to stomp the dust out of the cracks in the floorboards and then reflect on the aftermath as she sweeps up the mess she's made.

As Merritt acknowledges her desire to rattle the rafters with a little classic soul on "Tambourine," she reaffirms the creative conviction that allowed her to make the singular and - even two ' years later - surprising country/folk gossamer of "Bramble Rose."

Some critics and perhaps even some of her fans may have difficulty reconciling the two works as equally weighted expressions of Merritt's songwriting and performing capabilities, but she has very little trouble justifying the soulful exuberance of "Tambourine" and the introspection of "Bramble Rose."

"I am both of those women," says Merritt with a laugh. "Those forces live within me, and I must make peace with them day to day, both the wild extrovert and the extremely private introvert. It's not an easy job. The stage is a very safe place, in its own way. I mean, it's not real life."

If "Bramble Rose's" whisper truly requires any kind of defense against the joyful shout of "Tambourine," Merritt offers the time honored explanation of a beginner's overreaching expectations.

"I love that record," Merritt says emphatically of "Bramble Rose." "You go into the studio to make your first big release, and you've been playing in bars your whole life, it's easy to get a case of 'I must make something important. I must be a serious artist.' Honestly, I think my live shows have gotten louder and louder as I've gone along."

Given the sonic genesis of Merritt's live presence, coupled with her recent listening habits, the outgoing boldness of "Tambourine" was a foregone conclusion. There was little doubt in Merritt's mind, as she began to assemble the songs that would comprise her second album, that this record would be very different from its predecessor, which had its own fascinating timeline.

Merritt and her band, the Carbines, had been wowing locals in the Raleigh, N.C. scene for some time when fellow scenester Ryan Adams asked his friends at Lost Highway Records to come have a listen for themselves.

Adams and Merritt shared a management company, and Merritt had opened for Adams on a number of occasions, giving him a front row seat for her quickly evolving live performances.

Lost Highway clearly saw Merritt's potential, signed her and hustled her into the studio to begin work on "Bramble Rose," released in the summer of 2002 to almost universally positive acclaim.

As the extensive tour for "Bramble Rose" wound down and Merritt began contemplating the direction for her next album, the one thing she knew would remain unchanged was her writing process. Merritt readily admits that she is not one to spontaneously toss off songs in the studio while in the midst of recording an album.

"I don't write on the fly," says Merritt. "It's probably immaturity or something in me, but I revise, I erase, I crumple up papers and throw them away, and no one has that much time in the studio. We went in with our work cut out for us."

One of the biggest departures was in the physical make-up of Merritt's accompaniment on the "Tambourine" sessions. Rather than relying on the Carbines again (who were in something of a state of flux during the making of "Tambourine"), Merritt and legendary producer George Drakoulias (whose board work includes the Jayhawks, the Black Crowes and Tom Petty) enlisted the help of some high powered musical talent to serve as the Tambourine band, including Heartbreakers Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench and stellar band/session drummer Don Heffington, with musical cameos from the Jayhawks' Gary Louris, steel guitar sensation Robert Randolph and Merritt's personal hero, vocalist Maria McKee.

Although Merritt is quick to spread plenty of credit around for the way "Tambourine" turned out, she reserves special honors for Drakoulias, who made an impression on the teenaged Merritt when she heard and loved the Black Crowes' records and McKee's "You Got to Sin to Get Saved."

"George Drakoulias is just a really special person, and he has such an amazing feel," says Merritt with genuine affection. "He's an artist. I'd wanted to work with him for years. I felt really comfortable with his judgment on what the take is or what your performance is and getting it right. When there's so much pressure and lots of people standing around and wanting it to be finished and good enough, he's someone who brings everyone to the next place."

Merritt's admission that Drakoulias was on her radar as a potential producer seems somewhat surprising, given his track record as a big rock producer, but she knew instinctively what he could bring to her sound.

"He's done so much great roots music," says Merritt of Drakoulias. "I knew I wanted to work with him when I heard 'You Got to Sin to Get Saved' when it came out, when I was 19 years old. I know that sounds crazy, but I held that record in my hand and said, 'That's who I want to work with.' And I don't do that kind of thing often, but I had this weird sense. He also has an affinity for being soulful in a way that has a lot of energy. His records have a lot of joy in them. So that was something I knew he could help me with."

Merritt was obviously affected by all of the incredible talent that she worked with on "Tambourine," but she's naturally awed by McKee's input.

"Her voice is unreal, it is just awesome," says Merritt. "She's just so vivacious and fun to be around. You know, it's a scary thing to meet the people that you look up to. It's something that changes you, for sure. I think she's wonderful."

Of course, McKee was just one of the potentially intimidating musicians involved in "Tambourine," and Merritt was equally awed by their presences as well.

"I certainly had times on this record, working with George and Mike Campbell and Jim Scott, who's amazing, and Gary Louris and Maria McKee, and I'd be standing there going, 'What am I doing in this room with these people?' The grounding force that I keep in this crazy business and in any of these situations where I want to run out the back door is that these are songs that I wrote. They're not perfect songs. They're not the only songs, but these are my songs. And if these people have chosen to be a part of that, then I guess it's okay."

With all of the incredible talent involved in the making of "Tambourine," it would have been understandable if Merritt had taken a moment to bask in the glory of having so many respected musicians taking a very real interest in her work. To her credit, Merritt is not one to let the trappings of the industry inflate her ego beyond her ability to get her head through the door.

"It's always such a dangerous thing to make yourself too comfortable," she says with an infectious laugh. "But I certainly had a good time at the party."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com