The Daily Tar Heel

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Tuesday September 27th

Tift Merritt's Timeless Music Takes Off

Time slows around alt-country singer-songwriter Tift Merritt.

She speaks with a slight drawl -- her voice has an unhurried but direct quality, a casualness that is both refreshing and informal. When she stubs out her Camel Light, Merritt languidly spins it around the ashtray, extinguishing it with short, absent-minded jabs.

Her music is equally timeless. Classic without sounding dated, Merritt's songs and guitar playing move at their own pace. Her worldly, whiskey-soaked alto is both blue and intimate.

While many singers would gladly kill to deliver a song as if they were alive during the Great Depression, Merritt, 26, said her voice has always outpaced her age, ever since she learned to sing along to Dolly Parton records as a child.

"I think it's a blessing. It's not something that I go, 'I have to sound old and worldly,'" she said. "I don't do that at all -- It's just what comes out of me.

"I'm just trying to make good music and trying to say something true, something hard."

Much of the basis for Merritt's steadfast approach to music comes from her parents. Merritt's father, originally from Texas, could play several instruments by ear and heavily influenced her taste in music early on.

Although he didn't coach his daughter per se, Merritt said her father put her on the right track.

"I got him to show me the chords on the guitar, and he showed me four chords, and he said (imitating a thick Texas drawl) 'You can play any song in the world, and don't bother with the bar chords, cuz they don't sound good,'" she said.

"And, y'know, there it is -- that's pretty much what I do. Dad was right."

She might use only four chords for the most part, but Merritt's talent has put her in good company. Merritt collaborated with John Howie and the Two Dollar Pistols for 1999's Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt, a collection of famous country duets with a few Howie-Merritt originals.

The duet album was lauded by The New York Times that year, and Merritt has received press from No Depression, a magazine documenting the alt-country scene.

While many artists chronically fear being pigeonholed, Merritt welcomes her identification with the genre.

"There's so much under that umbrella, and if somebody says 'alt-country' they immediately know that I'm not doing something akin to Reba McEntire, and they know it's not like navel pop," she said.

"I don't do something that has blues or R&B in it and they go, 'That's not alt-country!' -- It's really great to be categorized in a genre that gives you that freedom."

So Merritt has a homegrown talent and the freedom to move at her own pace, but her life may be about to speed up.

Having given up her day job as a waitress at Raleigh's Cafe Luna, Merritt was recently signed by Lost Highway Records, a division of Mercury that houses artists like Lucinda Williams.

Merritt plans to record an album this summer and is currently in the midst of touring the country -- she just returned from a trip to the West Coast, and will perform at the Cat's Cradle on Saturday before heading to Texas for a week.

Merritt said she feels like her career's about to kick into overdrive, which is both exciting and more than a little scary.

"I feel really inspired to work and be better and do better shows and give more, because now I can actually kind of focus," she said.

"It's a weird thing to wake up and go, 'Oh my God, I'm a musician -- I'm not a waitress, I'm a musician, and I hope I don't let anybody down!'"

Tift Merritt will perform at the Cat's Cradle at 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available at Schoolkids Records.

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