Tift Merritt: Coffee Talk With The Compass Rose

Tift Merritt

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Eric Heywood with Tift Merritt
Eric Heywood with Tift Merritt

Backstage at MerleFest, Merritt knows not a stranger. She warmly greets everyone she comes across, from longtime stage manager and friend Maple Byrne to members of (and fellow North Carolinians) the bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line. A familial bond exists between Merritt and her bandmates; smiles and hugs are exchanged before they take the headlining Watson Stage.

Onstage, Merritt is a graceful dynamo. She glides effortlessly from guitars to keys, though her unmistakably crisp and resonant vocals are front and center. No more than a song into Merritt’s set, a man standing next to me admits to anyone and no one in particular, “man, that voice…she just cuts right into you,” shaking his head in wonder. Her hero Emmylou Harris once awed that Merritt “stood out like a diamond in a coal patch”, and a more apt description may be hard to find; Merritt’s voice embodies a sultry country soul that has left many critics scrambling for adjectives.

Strumming her trusty vintage Gibson B-25, “Little Red”, with holes worn into the pickguard and body, Merritt’s guitar could pass for the red-headed cousin to Willie Nelson’s similarly weathered Martin, “Trigger”. Perhaps giving ‘Little Red’ a break, she has also added a vintage sunburst Gibson J-45 to her performances. As in the recording studio, her band is more than capable to holding their own.

Eric Heywood is a mad scientist on a guitar, whether soloing on his electric or carving out a myriad of twangy spirit from his pedal steel; Jay Brown, a longtime musical compatriot of Merritt’s, steady as rent with bass and harmonies, and keeping time is drummer Noah Levy on drums, who has lent his services for pretty much everyone in music. Playing off each other’s eye contact, Merritt and her mates keep the music tightly flowing through their afternoon set.

Counting Night, Merritt has released seven albums to date. For reasons both unknown and stupefying, mainstream commercial music stardom has not yet busted down her door. While critics have long praised her songwriting and her albums always garner high acclaim, millions will not rush out to buy her albums. As a whole, modern music seems to be more interested in finding the new pop superstar, no matter the genre. Pop music is just that; a fizzle, a saccharine firecracker. It explodes for an instant then disappears, lacking substance to continue over time, burning out as The Next Big Thing takes flight.

With such a nascent rise to fame, success for the pop musician is usually fleeting. Iconoclasts may not get the brightest lights on the marquee, yet their lights burn the longest. While one may not find her albums at the top of the best seller lists, Merritt’s albums will not be sharing space on crowded discount shelves or in thrift store bins with the overproduced pop stars any time soon, either. Intelligent music made by perceptive individuals on lifelong journeys of self-discovery and exploring what makes this world spin the way it does – that music has staying power which resonates across generations. That music is made by iconoclasts, such as Tift Merritt, and iconoclasts last forever.

Where she stands now, Merritt may not know when or where her next steps will lead, and that’s perfectly fine with her. Moving from North Carolina, taking up residence in New York City, becoming a Francophone during her Another Country days, to Traveling Alone and exploring into Night, some might think Merritt is all over the map, without a proverbial compass. Merritt erupts in a cheerful laugh. “You know, it’s scary, it’s exciting, and it gathers strength as it goes,” she quips. “You know, being brave is something that, it’s like a muscle, that you just practice and it becomes second nature.”

She will soon depart, continuing her touring on the East Coast, connecting with Dinnerstein across the pond in the United Kingdom into mid July, before rejoining her band through the summer months. In fact, no matter where those next steps will take her, Merritt is certainly pointed in the right direction. “I will say that I do have a compass, I promise, and my dad may be my most formal compass – he and I are very close,” Merritt shares. “I have a really wonderful family of people around me, and a few opinions of my own. So I’m not totally without a compass. It just may not make any sense to anyone else!”

After the last song of the festival played over the loudspeakers and I joined the thousands of rain soaked-yet-cheery festivalgoers back to our vehicles, scattering like ants to wherever we call our own, before I turned my engine, dialing up my GPS pointing my car northward back to Virginia, I couldn’t help but think of something Merritt said to me earlier, as I plan a pending move to the West Coast, chasing my own creative dreams.

“You leave your home to find it, and that’s an endless coming and going.”

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