Tift Merritt Goes Soul-Searching

'Tambourine' Shows Influence of Ray Charles, Carole King

While the rest of Rome was away on holiday late in the summer, Tift Merritt felt like she had the famously fashionable city all to herself. Not only that, but she had one of the most luxurious rooms in town -- "a very old villa that a real princess lived in," Merritt says. "She was truly a princess."

Coincidentally, the princess had emptied her belongings from the villa to remodel it, giving Merritt a unique setting for her second music video, "Good Hearted Man." After a few hours there and a gourmet lunch break of Italian meats and cheeses, she took to the piazza, with Italian police blocking off the streets.

"This big crowd of folks who thought I was some fabulously famous American movie star gathered around and kept asking me to hold their babies and sign autographs," Merritt remembers with a huge grin. (With her blonde hair, winning smile and surfer's physique, she could easily pass for a movie star.) "It was truly something I wish all my friends had seen, because otherwise they would not believe me."

"Good Hearted Man" comes from the album Tambourine, which calls to mind the sensual singing of Dusty Springfield and the evocative writing of Carole King. It landed her a Grammy nomination for best country album, alongside Loretta Lynn, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban and Gretchen Wilson. Merritt, 29, wrote nearly the entire album on her own, drawing inspiration from her collection of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles records.

"When I'm home making dinner or cleaning my house, I think, 'What am I going to listen to?' And it's always Ray Charles, because it just puts you at ease and it sounds so true."

She also strives to capture the freewheeling spirit found in live albums from R&B duo Delaney & Bonnie. "I never was able to see them perform in the 1970s with Eric Clapton and the whole crew of people," Merritt says, "but on vinyl, the recordings translate. You can just tell they were having an amazing time. It was a great party. So many people on stage who loved music."

Populated with classic R&B elements such as a Wurlitzer piano, a Hammond B-3 organ, and even a gospel choir, Tambourine has attracted enthusiastic audiences in clubs throughout the U.S., thanks to rave reviews in countless publications. And because this isn't the hushed alt.country of her previous album, 2002's Bramble Rose, the crowds are not shy about shouting out their approval, even at the unlikeliest moments.

"I played this show in Memphis on a Sunday night, and we weren't really sure anybody was going to come, but we had this amazing crowd who were absolutely rowdy," Merritt says. "We sang 'Still Pretending,' and when it was over, they decided they wanted to hear it again."

Merritt laughs at the memory. "We were really baffled by it. I said, 'Really? Can we have a show of hands of who would like us to move on?' Nobody raised their hand! They demanded we sing that song again!"

No stranger to the bar scene herself, Merritt built a local following in the late 1990s, singing in country bands in the North Carolina music scene. In 2000, her song "Blue Motel" won the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition at MerleFest. A tip from one of the festival's judges, Jim Lauderdale -- as well as an endorsement from one of her peers, Ryan Adams -- helped her land a record deal with Lost Highway.

"I was really shy when I first started performing," she says. "I thought there was a lot of vanity in it. I wasn't quite sure why I wanted to get up there and why I wanted people to come see me do my thing. Over the years, I've gotten a lot better at it, and I've learned that it's something that brings me a lot of joy, and it's what I'm good at. So I'm sticking to it."

And she's grateful for the opportunity to travel across the country, one battered dressing room at a time.

"I've gained confidence over the years performing in clubs," she says. "You just get your sea legs and you realize this is an amazing thing to be able to do. It's an amazing life. But by the same token, I'm every bit as private as I am public. That's where the writing comes in. That's where I'm like a third-grader covering my paper. I won't let anyone see it."

Still, coming off the road is tough for somebody who's used to screaming crowds and a van full of musicians.

"I live on the North Carolina coast, and I'm very isolated where I am," she says. "I'm in this tiny town on a tiny street. And wow, the first three nights I'm home, at 10:30, I am going bonkers, looking around, going, 'Where is everybody?!?'"

However, she has found her niche in North Carolina, surfing and cooking whenever time allows. It's a broad U-turn from her early desire to move to New York City.

"Somebody gave me great advice when I was younger, which was, 'Don't go look for your art in the city. Make your art and take it to the city when you're ready,'" she says. "To a certain extent, that has worked with me, because that's the kind of person I am. I work well in isolation. That clicked with me. I do think being a musician and being on the road and having attention, you do need to make a concerted effort to go do your soul-searching."

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