Fourteen years ago Tift Merritt stepped out of North Carolina and onto the national stage with an album so accomplished and assured that it was almost impossible to believe that it was her debut. Bramble Rose betrayed few growing pains, instead revealing a songwriter and performer full of grit and grace who seemed destined for bigger and better things.
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Merritt has fulfilled those initial expectations with the unfailingly high quality of her subsequent work, even if widespread commercial success hasn’t quite been in the cards. Bramble Rose is getting a limited edition re-release in vinyl this February, and the artist who birthed this outstanding collection of songs has a soft spot in her heart for them. “There was so much sweetness in that time, something pure in making a first record,” Merritt remembered. “We were so excited to be in the studio together, to be in Los Angeles – everything was ahead and everything was happening for the first time. When I think of how all the miles I’ve seen began with this little seed, it gives me a great deal of hope. I could tell you 1,000 tender stories from those days. But maybe that is what those songs are.”
“Virginia, No One Can Warn You” certainly qualifies as a tender story. In a way, it was the public’s introduction to Merritt, thanks to a clever one-shot video that received ample airplay. A mid-tempo rambler featuring a steadfast rhythm, some well-placed pedal steel courtesy of Greg Reading (now a member of Raleigh-based Chatham County Line), and production from Ethan Johns that leaves ample open space for Merritt’s longing melody to unfurl, it’s a goodbye song. Yet unlike most goodbye songs, it doesn’t concern the end of a romantic relationship.
Instead the title character seems to be an earlier incarnation of the narrator, one full of equal parts hope, optimism, and naiveté. Seemingly much wiser if not much older, the woman looks back at the girl, offers advice, and bids her farewell. As much as she has genuine affection for this open-hearted kid, she does what she has to do and cuts ties: “You’re my favorite thing my sweet cavalier/ You have saved my life, I must leave you here.”
Merritt doesn’t shy away from showing some of the missteps of this younger doppelganger. The first line (“With your eyes made up and your dress see through”) suggests an ill-advised if not intentional promiscuity, while later she dresses her down for her inner dishevelment: “There’s no room down here for a pretty mess.” There’s also heartfelt regret that she can’t save her former self from the stumbles and pitfalls that are bound to come: “I can’t give you word it won’t all cave in/ There’s no good way home, there’s no place to rest.”
The final verse suggests the decision to cast this part of herself away required some sacrifice. “The worst I could do, oh, what would I be,” Merritt sings, “If I kept for mine something better than me.” For all her good intentions though, she knows that any advice will ultimately fall on deaf ears. After all, she has already lived through it once: “When the winter comes, how the cold moves through/ Oh Virginia, no one can warn you.”
It’s possible that there are two different people within the song, but “Virginia, No One Can Warn You” seems to be a clever way of one person realizing that some lessons just have to be learned the hard way. In any case, it’s a fine display of Merritt’s talent as songwriter and performer and an example of how a sublime early song can sometimes set the table for an entire career.