Tift Merritt’s Transformations
In the songs of Tift Merritt, the stuff of everyday life is ripe for the picking.
Tift Merritt is a folk and country singer-songwriter. Her 2004 album Tambourine was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Country Album.
Merritt was born in Houston in 1975 and raised in Raleigh, NC. She started playing with a band, The Carbines, while studying creative writing at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Their EP The Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt was released in 1999. Her first solo album, Bramble Rose (2002), was named the best debut of the year by the Associated Press and listed on year-end lists in Time and The New Yorker. In 2015, former Eagles frontman Don Henley covered the title track with Mick Jagger. Merritt has recorded six more albums, including the Grammy-nominated Tambourine in 2004 and See You on the Moon, which reached number 7 on the Billboard folk charts in 2010.
Known for her soulful storytelling, Merritt continues to tour and record. Her seventh LP, Stitch of the World, was released in 2017.
On a spring day in Philadelphia, the singer-songwriter Tift Merritt came by Articulate’s home, the Stotesbury Mansion, for an intimate performance and conversation. Merritt is a writer, whose favorite way to tell stories is in the bite-sized form of song.
Tift Merritt: The lyric has to be really electric because you’re editing everything out that is not pushing the story forward.
(Tift Merritt singing from “Bramble Rose”)
The ungrateful few who tangle inside
Don’t care where they’re born, they’re growing up wild
The rain makes me thirsty and fighting to go
My mind turns determined, dark as a storm
Merritt’s mastery of her craft has earned her some high-profile fans, among them, Eagles founding member, Don Henley. In 2015, he recruited fellow rock legend, Mick Jagger and country superstar, Miranda Lambert, to record one of Merritt’s best-known songs, Bramble Rose.
Once your love has blown as far as a bramble rose
Just a real good woman nobody knows
Over the course of 20 years and 7 albums, Tift Merritt has covered a lot of thematic ground. Sure, there have been the songs about love and heartbreak, but also ones that examine ancient Greek myth, like 2017’s “Icarus”, the story of the boy, who with his father, imprisoned inside Knossos Palace in Crete, made wings from chicken feathers and candle wax. Ignoring his father, Daedalus’, advice, Icarus flies too high, too close to the sun. His wings melt and he falls to his death.
AJC: And it has taught us ever since for millennia about hubris and about the foolishness of youth, but not for you.
Merritt: Well, I mean, first of all, we must think about what a beautiful crash landing this young man and all of his chicken feathers would have been. And second of all, I really feel like this poor guy has been locked up, and for thousands of years now, he is the example of hubris, but really, nobody got hurt except for him and his ego, and he really didn’t do anything that bad. I mean, I think we have some modern examples of hubris that might be a little more demonstrative. So, I kind of feel like he got a really bad rap, and that somebody needed to maybe nurse his wounds and go to the dreamers and the people who do try to fly too high. I think there’s one way of looking at it, which is you don’t want to be arrogant, but I feel like Icarus was so damned in such a harsh way, and maybe flying out of prison was an exuberant feeling, and he enjoyed it, and you gotta cheer for him a little bit for that.
(Tift Merritt singing from “Icarus”)
I found him in the field out there
His clothes were torn, glue in his hair
Feather down over everything
On the ground, his broken wings
I washed his hair and I nursed his bones
I held the way he felt alone
Keeping watch over fitful sleep
To catch him falling out of his dreams
There’s a wing down in each of us
Faster than the speed of sound inside
In 2016, Tift Merritt gained fresh perspective on Daedalus’ desire to protect his son when she became a parent herself, but says she hopes never to stifle her daughter, Jean.
Merritt: You know, I certainly wouldn’t want Jean to take any unnecessary risks with her health and safety, but I would also hope that she extends herself fully into the world, and I think that’s the most important risk that they must take, and I certainly cannot explain that to her, and I realize I have a very limited sphere of influence as a mother. She is her own person, and the best thing I can do is just be a clear example of the things I believe in.
Tift Merritt is a Texas native who grew up in North Carolina, but is raising her daughter in New York City. But wherever she is, writing comes naturally. Merritt is a close observer of the world, and mines even the minutia of everyday life for material. Take, for instance, her 2012 song, “Small Talk Relations”.
Merritt: I feel like the song started with a construction site on my street in New York City, and just that sort of noise of city life, and the feeling that it is, that life is just obscuring what is important and what is underneath and that feeling of being the only person trying to hold onto that, and all the small talk relations are just noise.
(Tift Merritt singing from “Small Talk Relations”)
I skipped a stone and watched it go
The arc and then the undertow
Thinking a day is something like a prayer
So much to ask, you started soft
Then the weight of locks come off
In the end you just hope someone’s there
‘Cause all these small talk relations
No, they ain’t nothing for real
No, nobody here at all knows
The way that I feel