"Rain like static falling in my eyes/ rain like static on the road/ rain on the loners and the regular thieves/ everybody else has gone home." - Late Night Pilgrim. - Tift Merritt

Tift Merritt - Tambourine CD Cover
When Texan born Tift Merritt recently gave evidence to an inquiry into constraints of corporate radio she blow torched the boss of a 16-station North Carolina chain.

Don Curtis, owner of Curtis Media whose stations compete with the Clear Channel monopoly, tried to deflect music choice to his disc jockeys.

"I know you have my CD, Mr. Curtis," she added, "because my dad gave it to you."

Centralised programming by a small core of consultants has long been mirrored here in the unlucky radio country.

It was parodied in 1978 movie FM, Mark Germino classic Rex Bob Lowenstein and many other parodic pieces.

But Houston born Merritt, who recorded with Two Dollar Pistols before a solo career, put her soul on the line at the hearing.

She does the same on her second solo CD Tambourine (Lost Highway-Universal).

The singer, now 29, was born in Houston but moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, when she was two.

On this disc, produced by George Drakoulias (whose clients includes Jayhawks, Black Crowes and Tom Petty), she owes more to Muscle Shoals and Memphis than Austin or Nashville.

Greenhorn critics may be bemused by the producer's penchant for brass and organ but veteran country artists T Graham Brown, David Lynn Jones and Delbert McClinton have long ignited their country with those accelerants.


Tift Merritt
It's not surprising the only cover is a gospel gallop on McClinton's Your Love Made A U Turn.

Merritt seems to have left peers such as Shelby Lynne, her little sister Allison Moorer and Kim Richey in the sonic shade on Tambourine.

"I was listening to Carole King and Dusty Springfield and Delaney and Bonnie, and I wanted to write really great songs and have that sort of throw down feel that Delaney and Bonnie and all their friends have," Merritt revealed of her soulful sequel to 2002 disc Bramble Rose.

Tift entrees with vibrant Stray Paper that name checks her birth place and cruises into the dynamic jangle of Wait It Out and the melancholic Good Hearted Man - maybe a sibling of Waylon Jennings Good Hearted Woman.

She jogs on jagged edges of her heavy heart on Ain't Looking Closely, the hauntingly beautiful Still Pretending and radio friendly Write My Own Ticket with Maria McKee on harmony.

There's poetic beauty on Plainest Thing - "I found a mark where the ink bled through/ under a song I was writing for you."

But the hook heavy title track, perhaps aimed at flat-headed radio programmers, is sandwiched by two superior songs Late Night Pilgrim and Laid A Highway.

The latter is a nostalgia-drenched small town homily that could earn gold for heat seeking chart chanteuses Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack.

"They laid a highway a few years back/ next town over by the railroad track/ some nights I'm glad it passed us by/ some nights I sit and watch my hometown die."


Merritt was flattered to be nominated for album of the year against the winner Loretta Lynn, Tim McGraw and February tourists - expatriate Australasian Keith Urban and Gretchen Wilson - who play Melbourne this weekend.

"You can't imagine how shocked I was when I heard the album was nominated," she says.

"It's such an honour and a thrill to be in that list."

She jokingly describes her recent tour as "our drive to the Grammys."

Merritt's musical career began at the University of North Carolina, where she lived in the tiny town of Bynum while pursuing a creative writing degree.

Only six hours short of her diploma, she put her education "on hiatus" to concentrate on her budding musical career.

She now lives near the beach south of Wilmington, where she also indulges another, newer passion: surfing.

But Merritt's earliest roots are in Houston.

She was born here, and her father, an enthusiastic folk musician got her interested in guitar as a teenager.

He was also a Houston native.


"I got a postcard with no address/a picture of Houston in a beat-up mess." - Stray Paper - Tift Merritt.

She mentions her old hometown in the opening lines of her song Stray Paper - first song on Tambourine.

In 1998, she released her first seven-inch with her band the Carbines on her own Oil Rig label.

"My grandfather was a Texan, and my dad talked about him a lot," she says.

"I only know about him through stories and photographs, but he's my mental vision of what it means to be a Texan, kinda bigger than life."

Merritt grew up surrounded by books and words (brother George is a reporter for the Denver Post) and music.

She learned to sing by harmonising with her father at the piano.

"Music was just something personal for me," says Merritt, "something I kept pretty private until I got to UNC."

She tried the solo folk thing for a short time but wasn't comfortable as an underage kid around bar crowds.

She eventually hooked up with other musicians around the campus and formed the Carbines with drummer Zeke Hutchins.

She also got to know local honky-tonk writer and singer John Howie - now front man for Two Dollar Pistols.

And in 2000, her seven-song EP of duets with him brought her to the attention of David Menconi of the Raleigh News and Observer.

"The first I heard of Tift was a tape with demos and her first single, Juke Joint Girl,' " says Menconi.


After winning the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest 2000, she teamed with Frank Callari who managed Jim Lauderdale, Ryan Adams and other roots acts.

Callari took an executive role with Mercury Records boutique label Lost Highway.

Tift recorded her debut solo disc Bramble Rose in Los Angeles with producer Ethan Johns and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench augmenting her band.

Bramble Rose sold 45,000 copies but wasn't a huge commercial success.

It received critical attention and brought favourable comparisons with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.

Tambourine featured an all-star team - Mike Campbell and Tench from Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, steel guitar ace Robert Randolph, drummer Don Heffington, Jayhawk Gary Louris, Maria McKee and a full gospel choir.

Good Hearted Man has received wide video exposure on CMT in the U.S. and found the singer praising the late Ray Charles.

"To me, someone like Ray Charles was such a visionary," says Merritt.

"He saw that gospel and blues were coming from the same musical well, had similar chord structures and stylistic traits. Then he just turns the world upside down by making a country record that's as great as anything else he ever did. I think he could do that because he understood that it's all just very earthy music coming from a place of similar inspiration. I try to make sure my songs will stand up whether it's just a stripped-down acoustic singer-songwriter presentation, a basic four-piece band or a larger ensemble that includes horns or keys."

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