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(Lost Highway 099 170 273 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/29/2002)
Country rock has been around since the late 1960s, and enjoyed a fair amount of success in the 1970s. It has definitely found new life in the so-called alt.country or roots rock movement. Today's music has taken a number of forms from folk-rock to old-time country revival to something close to jam bands. North Carolina has been a hotbed of such music for several years now, with groups like Whiskeytown and Six String Drag attracting a fair amount of attention. The scene, however, has been rather male-dominated. This week, we have the debut recording of a fine North Carolina-based singer-songwriter who has been compared to Emmylou Harris. Her name is Tift Merritt, and her CD is called Bramble Rose.
Tift Merritt grew up in Raleigh, and also spent some time in New York City. She was attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1997 when she met drummer Zeke Hutchins, who had played in a band called Queen Sarah Saturday. Merritt passed on a demo tape of songs she had penned, some from her time in New York, and Hutchins was enchanted. They began working together, and eventually assembled a band called the Carbines, which began to attract attention. Among their regular gigs was at the general store in tiny Bynum, NC, near where Ms. Merritt still lives and takes her mail. The Carbines had decided to release a 7" 45-rpm single on their own, and Ms. Merritt had been mailing out boxes of promotional records, arousing the curiosity of the postmaster/general-store owner. When asked about the packages, she said she played in a band, and the postmaster said, why don't you come and play here.
Other more conventional performances followed at various North Carolina venues, and at music conferences like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where Ms. Merritt's songs caught the ear of people in the music business. After an ill-fated album project for a major label which was never released, Ms. Merritt has come forth with Bramble Rose which features new recordings old songs from the unreleased album, plus songs that she wrote since then, performed with regular members of her band.
Ms. Merritt is has all the right assets for a winning alt.country artist -- an appealing but slightly rough-hewn voice, a style than can range from laid-back to bringing kind of emotion that Patsy Cline could give to a song. She's an outstanding lyricist -- one of those writers whose oblique, economical verse is both intriguing vague and profound. She examines the range of emotions, including loss of love, that are the meat-and-potatoes of good country songs, and does it in a very tasteful, partly acoustic musical setting, that is likewise understated but can reach just the right emotional note.
Serving as producer is one of the best in the roots-rock alt.country field, Ethan Johns, who did brilliant work with Whisleytown's Ryan Adams on his solo albums. The rest of Ms. Merritt's band includes Greg Readling on Dobro and pedal steel, Jay Brown on bass, plus her long-time musical and life companion and Zeke Hutchins on drums. The only other guest besides producer Johns, who plays various instruments, is keyboard man Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers.
The album leads off with a good example of Ms. Merritt's fine writing and the band's classy playing. Trouble Over Me considers a relationship seemingly without a long-term commitment. <<>>
The title song Bramble Rose is also a gem, with its old-fashioned allegorical lyrics but broken-hearted country-music sentiments, complete with the requisite steel guitar. <<>>
One of the more interesting songs is Bird of Freedom. The piece was inspired by a friend of Ms. Merritt's who was making a film about his father who was killed in Vietnam. The group was in the process of recording the album on September 11, which makes the first line eerily relevant. <<>> Ms. Merritt said the song does not really have a story line as such, but its series of vignettes, along with the laid-back almost Rolling Stones-style musical backing, makes it a highlight of the album. <<>>
Ms. Merritt and band seem to show a bit of influence by the late Roy Orbinson on I Know Him Too, which also draws from the deep well of country music. <<>>
With a more rock-oriented sound, but also dealing with the fertile country music topic of unfaithfulness is Neighborhood. Again, one can hear hints of the Rolling Stones in the arrangement. <<>>
The kind of song that has inspired some to draw a comparison between Ms. Merritt and Emmylou Harris is exemplified in Diamond Shoes, which features a particularly fine performance by Ms. Merritt. <<>>
Tift Merritt has written one of those nearly perfect country songs in the classic style. Are You Still in Love with Me, is also given a sound hinting at Owen Bradley's production with Patsy Cline. It's the kind of song that could easily become a country standard. <<>>
The album ends with another track with lyrics that could be interpreted to mean something much more profound that their original inspiration. When I Cross Over has an almost-hymn-like quality many would interpret as looking forward to the afterlife. But Ms. Merritt in an interview said that it was actually about her desire to get away on vacation to Canada. Still, it's another instant classic. <<>>
Tift Merritt's new debut CD, Bramble Rose, is a very impressive recording from an exceptionally fine songwriter and classy singer who distills all the best elements of the alternative country scene, combining classic rock influences with some enduring country elements. Though she claims that several of the songs are autobiographical, or at least written from her own point of view, this CD is chock full of songs that could easily find their way into the repertoire of other singers. The band on the CD is nonpareil, playing with the kind of generally laid-back understatement that lets the songs thrive and nicely highlights Ms. Merritt's vocals -- a voice that just seems to get better the more your listen. Ethan Johns' production plays no small part, with its considerable restraint, giving what sounds like a nearly live quality to the captured performances. It's an album on which just about everything is done right.
Our grade for sound quality is an "A." Ethan Johns is one producer who still has some respect for dynamic range, and the CD is a joy to listen to as it captures most of the ebb and flow of the music. The instrumentation is also well-recorded with a singular lack of contemporary sonic fads.
With Bramble Rose, we are introduced to one of the most worthy new talents to come out of the alternative country field in some time. Tift Merritt an artist whose future looks bright indeed.
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