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Breakin' Out

Local alt-country diva Tift Merritt signs with new Mercury subsidiary Lost Highway Records


In early February, local singer-songwriter Tift Merritt played a solo show at the Lakeside Lounge in Raleigh to a modest crowd of friends and fans. Two weeks later, she was standing backstage at the legendary Troubadour in Los Angeles, waiting for her cue and trading compliments with Elton John. In an interview almost a year ago, she said, "You get to the level you can handle and then you go to the next level, if you can handle it." Well it looks like she's more than handled it: balled it up and hogtied it is a more fitting description, going from local to national seemingly overnight on the heels of a long-awaited recording contract. As the most recent signatory to Mercury Records subsidiary Lost Highway, Merritt is sharing space on the roster with country luminaries Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey, Robert Earl Keen and Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams, among others.

Since 1998, when she and drummer Zeke Hutchins formed The Carbines, Merritt's voice has been blowing the roof off of Triangle venues. The band immediately developed a local following, and within a year released a seven-inch record featuring two high-energy, honky tonk-style originals, "Juke Joint Girl" and "Cowboy." At the time, Merritt and the Carbines fit comfortably into the growing country music scene, playing alongside bands like the Two Dollar Pistols and the Tremblers. In fact, in 1999, Merritt joined up with John Howie, frontman for the Pistols, to record a seven-song CD of classic country duets for Yep Roc Records. Her angelic vibrato contrasted beautifully with Howie's deep growling voice, and the CD was wildly popular by small-label standards, garnering mention in England's Mojo magazine. While the country tradition grounds Merritt's music, however, the breadth and depth of her sound has since developed far beyond the country tradition.

Her music--a soulful and innovative blend of country, R & B and folk--is backed by a voice that can either blow you off your bar stool or sing you to sleep, depending on her mood. Her stage presence alone can silence a bar full of drunken honky-tonkers before the first note escapes from her lips. One fan, after the Lakeside Lounge show, said, "She is the King and Queen of twang these days!" And folklorist Tes Thraves says, "I don't ever listen to her without getting stirred up. I get that feeling with Emmylou, too, but with Tift, it's something that reaches in and churns you up."

After cutting such a distinctive artistic groove for herself, Merritt wasn't about to be boxed in. That's why Lost Highway was so attractive to her. It's the first major label that caters, almost exclusively, to the eclectic sounds of alt-country (as popularized by No Depression magazine). "Lost Highway really wants to be like an Asylum or a Shelter Records," says Merritt. "A lot of this music hasn't found its niche yet in the very label-conscious music scene. They want to sign people that they can let be artists."

Lost Highway is not the first label to court Merritt. Last spring a much-publicized deal with Sugar Hill looked all but sealed. In March, under the auspices of Sugar Hill, the Carbines, with Greg Readling on pedal steel and keyboard, Jay Brown on bass and Zeke Hutchins on drums, traveled to the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference in Austin, Texas. That was Merritt's first introduction to big industry gigs. She remembers, "There was a lot of pressure and I knew I was going to be really nervous. These functions are so industry oriented, and every artist at a place like that has been told that they are great and they are going to make it. And then the industry feeds off the hype and the artist feeds off the hype. I tried to just keep my head out of it," Merritt says. Not long after returning, the Sugar Hill negotiations mysteriously fell through, leaving her and her band unscathed and wiser.

Without an album or a manager to represent her, she lined up some of the highest profile gigs in the Southern roots music circuit, putting herself in front of the right audiences. Less than a month after SXSW (and the soured Sugar Hill deal), she won the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest 2000, which turned out to be a pivotal event for Merritt. Jim Lauderdale, one of the judges, championed her cause to talent manager Frank Callari, who happens to manage Ryan Adams, Kim Richey and Lucinda Williams. According to Merritt, Callari called and said, "People tell me I'm supposed to be managing you." She replied, "Well, they're right. I've been waiting for you to call." Merritt had been holding out for the perfect record deal, but she knew the best way to make ground was to get the right manager. She had set her sights on Callari long before he ever called.

"I had looked at the people on his roster and I knew that was where I wanted to be in my dream, you know, in the dream job," she says. Having the right manager, one who understands her music, gave Merritt the confidence boost she needed.

"You spend all this time struggling to define to other people what you are trying to do, or to find your niche, or make your space because it doesn't exist out there," she says. "Frank was a man with a lot of knowledge--I didn't have to worry anymore because I knew he knew what I was talking about."

Not long after Callari took over Merritt's management, he secured funds from Mercury Records to underwrite a demo CD for Merritt. In September last year, she and the Carbines hooked up with renowned local music producer Chris Stamey and spent almost a month, on and off, recording an album. Although the demo may never see the light of day, Merritt says the studio experience was invaluable. The recording was finished in October, but by then Callari had talked to Mercury Records. "This big guy at Mercury, who is a very good friend of Frank's said, 'Frank, we need to do this,'" Merritt recalls. Subsequently, the band was summoned to Nashville to perform for executives and staff from Mercury Records. "They said we weren't auditioning, but when we got back, we got our letter that said Mercury wanted to go into a deal with us."

At that point, the contract was still all paper and talk, but things started to change for Merritt last month when Callari booked her on a two-week tour opening for Ryan Adams. "I was so nervous," says Merritt. "It's the sort of thing where--right before something happens--you go, 'Oh, I'm not quite ready. I need to write one more song.' And then you go, 'Oh, God, I'm not going to be able to. I'm going to have to do it exactly like I am right now.'"

With a guitar, one small suitcase and a box full of pedals, picks and strings, Merritt flew to the West Coast and played six shows, wrapping up the tour at the Troubadour the night before the Grammies. While every show sold out, it was the "L.A. scene" that struck Merritt. "It was such a zoo," she recalls, "I think that's what's hard about going to L.A. to play. I definitely felt like people were there to pick [the music] apart or figure out what it is and what to do with it: whether it was going to make money and if it's good and who's going to produce it."

Bumping elbows with Elton John and Alanis Morissette backstage at the Troubadour is a far cry from playing the Lakeside Lounge, but Merritt's reaction to the Grammies, the post-Grammy party experience and her big-label negotiations was more that of a fascinated observer than a starry-eyed neophyte. "It was very intimidating from the outside, at first, but once I was there, it's like talking to anyone," she says. "I mean, I didn't talk to Bono or anything like that, but I felt very comfortable being myself, and that was a big victory for me."

The Carbines expect to enter the studio soon and have a record out by late spring or early summer, though no specific dates have been nailed down. When that happens, however, it will be on Merritt's terms: executives at Lost Highway have told Merritt to follow her instincts. "They're going to let me make the record and then I'll bring it back to them and they'll figure out what they want to do with it," she says. The album will feature a mix of her old familiar tunes and several new songs as well.

Merritt has worked hard, stayed in plenty of cheap hotels and held lame day jobs for a pittance. She's played gigs hundreds of miles from home for less money than it took to get there. But her fortitude, and that of her loyal and talented band, has paid off. "You want to always be challenged and always be working with interesting people who get you going," Merritt says. "I feel really comfortable and really happy and really lucky that things have fallen into place." EndBlock

Tift Merritt and the Carbines will headline at the Cat's Cradle on March 10.

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