Tift Merritt enjoys traveling alone

Aug 19, 2012

Ten years ago, Tift Merritt released her first album, “Bramble Rose,” to a chorus of “the next Lucinda Williams” or “the next Emmylou Harris” or “the next fill-in-the-name” of your favorite female Americana singer-songwriter.

“Bramble Rose” was a delightful debut, and her next effort, “Tambourine,” was nominated for a Grammy for best country album. Turned out, she was the first Tift Merritt, and that was more than good enough to earn a legion of dedicated fans.

Merritt, who will open for Mary Chapin Carpenter Wednesday night at the Taft Theatre and visit the WNKU studio that afternoon, is preparing for the Oct. 2 release of her fifth album, “Traveling Alone.” She is doing that on this tour, then will join her crackerjack band for a month, before going it alone again with Justin Townes Earle later in the fall.

After a decade in the spotlight, this year has been one of transition for Merritt. Always reflective and never glib, she weighs her words when asked if her expectations are different these days.

“My expectations of the kind of depth and meaning I will find within music are never disappointed ...,” she says. “My expectations for anything else are only that; I can’t control anything else except how I bring myself to my work.

“I made this record without a label and without a manager. It was very about doing exactly what I wanted to do. It always is, but without a manager, you’re the one calling all the shots. I think there are times creatively when it’s about reaching, and there are times when it’s just about burrowing down to just what it is that you do. Being comfortable in your own skin and doing that ... Rather than some kind of versatility.”

“Traveling Alone” is instantly recognizable, filled with melodies that harken back but stand on their own. “To Myself” and “Still Not Home” are uptempo rockers that Merritt will kill with the band, but she has also has the talent to turn tunes such as these into crowd-pleasers by herself. 

That’s just one of the lessons learned on a journey that began in North Carolina. Always musical, she enrolled at Chapel Hill to concentrate on writing when she met Zeke Hutchins, a drummer who would later become her husband. After woodshedding songs in a farmhouse, she found her way to an EP on the YepRoc label, which is releasing “Traveling Alone.”

“I think the North Carolina connection, in all aspects of my life, is really important,” she says. “It seems to make a lot of sense. And certainly, if anybody understands where I’m coming from, they’ve watched me work for such a long time. I’ve known those guys since I was 23 years old, so that’s a really nice thing.”

The new record might bring Merritt full circle from the early days, but it’s only one aspect of a restless curiosity. She has hosted an interview show called “The Spark” on Marfa, Texas, Public Radio for the past few years, and uses that forum to meet interesting people from many fields.

“I find that it’s a way to make meaning out of traveling, and it’s a wonderful excuse to meet brilliant people who are fascinating to me, outrageous characters ... It’s a very natural extension of my work,” she says. “And it’s super fun to have a reason to visit Marfa a couple of times a year.”

Many musicians, especially those who don’t ride around the country in luxury buses or routinely fly first-class, have a love-hate relationship with the road. When a performer steps on stage, it looks glamourous from the seats, but that’s just a small part of an artist’s day. So they come to grips with it, or they stay home.

“I’m really at a point in my life ... maybe it’s been this way for a long time, but we all have angst about our life,” Merritt says. “But it (angst) doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t fix anything. We all have things to do that we don’t want to do, we all have moments when we dream about something else.

“But I think there is a way to find meaning and enjoy doing a lot of pedestrian things in our life. The real stuff goes down not in moments of glory. That’s a really tempered controlled moment when you’re on stage.”

But then again, you never know when magic might strike. For Merritt, it came earlier this year when she toured with Nick Lowe.

“I had such a wonderful time on that tour,” she says. “... He employs an amazing economy of motion and sound. There is nothing extraneous on stage. It is so streamlined and beautiful, and it’s always very fascinating to me to watch someone pay attention to detail on that kind of level. How they tend to teach on that kind of level because that is the difference, always the difference between what is mediocre and what is fantastic.

“Being around all these artists like Nick Lowe and some of the people that I meet on the radio show, I think it reaffirms for me that meaning in your life comes from a few places that really have nothing to do with show business.”

Merritt makes a distinction between show business and art, but she is a performer and she’s not dismissive of the business side of art. In multiple conversations over the years, however, it’s clear that she chooses creativity over commerce. There’s a good chance that she could travel more comfortably and live in a larger space if she was willing to compromise on some positions.

That isn’t likely.

“My job as an artist is to make people feel ... I think everything is a process. My work, my life is a process,” she says. “I think that the integrity of that process is something that you cannot underestimate, it’s something that you have to confront very single day. I like to have that conversation about integrity as frequently as possible to remind myself how important it is.

“I think sometimes the noise of our culture and the speed of modern culture and the callousness of modern culture, sometimes that says that message isn’t that important, but I do believe it is.”

All you have to do is listen.

Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tift Merritt, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St., downtown. $42.50, $30 (plus service charges). 513-232-6220, tafttheatre.org.

Email Bill Thompson