Not to get all New Agey on you--with the exception of Jimmie Dale Gilmore, mysticism and Country & Western go together like tofu and truckstops--but there's definitely an aura surrounding Tift Merritt. She has the reluctant luminescence of a late-'50s budding Opry star and a voice to match, enough so that you suspect that at least a small piece of her soul has appeared on the Ryman stage. It's fitting that her first song, written and delivered at the age of 16, was a Patsy Cline homage titled, "I Don't Want to Be a Waitress All My Life."
Not many folks got to hear that one. However, some seven years later, she caught the attention of Central North Carolina's healthy crop of roots music fans with "Lullaby," her striking contribution to a benefit album for Chatham County's Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services.
Since then, Merritt and the rest of the versatile and talented Carbines--drummer Zeke Hutchins, bass player Jay Brown, pedal steel player/utility guy Greg Readling, and recent addition, guitarist David Wilson (who also fronts the band Chatham County Line)--have more than kept that crowd interested, while significantly increasing its numbers. In part, this is due to the group's willingness to bring the music to the people, no matter how corny that sentiment looks on paper and no matter where the people may be hanging out.
Sadlack's and The Cave hosted Merritt and The Carbines early on, as did The Brewery. This past summer, they've performed on the front porch of the Bynum General Store and as part of Fowler's Back Porch series, both overflowing affairs. They've done shows for the Folklore Curriculum at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as several area house concerts, including one in which the band further charmed the audience by handing out beer to celebrate that the concert had sold out in a record- setting one hour.
The Carbine motto could be "No Venue Too Small," or, apparently, too mercantile, too educational, or too domestic. And wherever they play, the die-hards show up, frequently bringing die-hards-to-be with them. But it's clearly not a one-sided love affair.
"The ups and downs of the music business make the people that are home to you that much more important," says Merritt, when asked about her relationship with hometown fans. "We've never felt here that we had to be some sort of flavor of the week. We felt like people genuinely like what we do, and we genuinely love playing for them."
Thus far, although there have been many chances to hear Merritt and The Carbines in a live setting, the opportunities to hear them on record have been limited. A two-song 7-inch featuring a pair of early-but-potent Merritt compositions, "Jukejoint Girl" and "Cowboy," was recorded with Jerry Kee in late '98. A year later, Merritt joined up with John Howie's Two Dollar Pistols (with a moonlighting Readling sitting in on pedal steel) for a 1999 EP highlighted by a drop-dead gorgeous version of "One Paper Kid," a duet previously done by Willie Nelson and the singer to whom Merritt is most often compared, Emmylou Harris.
Part of this slow build was by design, and part of it was the music business. During an interview in the early spring of 1999, Merritt explained how she and The Carbines were planning to play out as much as they could for a while before releasing a follow-up to the 7-inch: "We're going to try to do something wise instead of hasty."
"We sure didn't do anything hasty," Merritt says now, more than two-and-a-half years later.
"It wasn't all because we were smart every step of the way. But we were sometimes wise and sometimes lucky and never hasty. That's what's taken so long."
With all that stuff--along with the memories of those successful shows--in their pockets, Merritt and The Carbines, recording under the Lost Highway banner, hit the studio this past September with the guidance of hot producer Ethan Johns (overseer of Ryan Adams' Gold album, among others). When it finally came time to record, the band had built up a pretty large catalog of songs to choose from.
"It was a funny thing for us because even though we had to wait to make a record, we couldn't just keep playing the same 10 songs over and over," Merritt says. "It was a really difficult thing to go in and say, 'So what do we put on this record?'"
And, like any group of serious players, they had evolved over time. During the recording, Merritt would call her dad, and he'd ask for a daily wrap-up.
"And I'd tell him, and he'd go 'Did you do "Blue Motel"? Is "Blue Motel" on this record?'" she recalls, with an affectionate chuckle. "I would say, 'You know, "Blue Motel" can't make this record. It was two years ago, and we're somewhere else now.'" (The good news is that many of those early songs were recorded with Chris Stamey as demos and may still surface someday.)
"I feel like a singer [now]," says Merritt, recounting how she practiced all summer in her living room after Johns told her that he wanted her to record the vocals live for the record. "I really learned how to do it in one take because, well, I had to."
In fact, all of the playing on the album is live, with the exception of a few guitar overdubs by Johns and some after-the-fact keyboard parts from the well-traveled Benmont Tench.
"It's live! It's live!" exclaims Merritt, laughing but also damn proud. "It's one of those cool '70s records" (something with which Tench, not to mention Johns' famous producer pop, Glyn, have more than a nodding acquaintance).
You get the feeling that Johns raised the bar for Merritt and The Carbines, which is exactly what they were looking for in a producer: someone to help them channel their nervous energy. But she and the band brought their own history and their own learned lessons to the studio; what it all boils down to is that they ended up making the record they had always wanted to make.
"In the music business, or in any aspect of life, there's this mythology that you're going to find someone who has the answers," Merritt says. "Especially creatively--you think you're going to find someone who teaches you how to find these things in yourself or is going to show you how to have a band and do what's right and do what's wise and do what you need to keep yourself creatively intact. If anything has changed for me, I think that every day that wears away a little bit, and no one's going to tell me what the answer is. And as a band, we've realized that no one is going to tell us what the answer is and that we are, in fact, the people who know what we're doing."
On New Year's Eve, fans will get to see this confident outfit at the Cat's Cradle and hear songs from the new album (currently slated for a spring release) in a show that can be seen as the ultimate, at least to date, payoff for both The Carbines and their loyal following.
Among the plans are to get as many musicians as possible on stage, including members of openers Chatham County Line and Merritt's father on background vocals. There are even rumors of a horn section.
When asked about the New Year's Eve show, Merritt, suddenly inspired, chooses to answer a previous question.
"You know, I can tell you how my life is going to change now," she confesses. "My potential for spreading any old rumor that I feel like is going to be bigger. I am going to spread some rumors."
Then she breaks into a rich, infectious laugh, one worthy of a star continuing to rise.