Tift Merritt took a quick trip back home to North Carolina last month when she returned to the MerleFest stage in Wilkesboro. When she was in her mid-20s, she won the festival’s songwriting competition for “Blue Motel,” which she’s never recorded. The Raleigh native has been a MerleFest regular since then.
“I love coming to MerleFest. And I love being in North Carolina,” she says. “And I love that this is a family affair. I’m always excited to come home. It feels so homey and sweet.”
These days, Merritt is living in New York City and planning a tour to England, yet she was happy to drop by the muddy MerleFest press to tent to catch up for a few minutes.
CMT Edge: Among your fan base, how many people do you suppose discovered your music through a festival?
Merritt: I don’t know. … It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve started doing a whole lot of festivals because of what we do. I mean, we’ve done some really wonderful roots festivals but not always the huge, huge ones. That’s not always where I belong because we are very song-oriented, and sometimes that’s more theater-oriented. But I love being outside and seeing all of the people. I love going to festivals.
I love Patty Griffin as a musician, and she’s such a gorgeous writer. Her writing is so expansive. And her voice is so expansive and powerful. I love her so much as a person, too.
I wanted to ask you about George Jones. Did you ever encounter him over the years?
No, I never met George Jones, but we listen to him a lot in our van. His vocal, what he could get his voice to do technically, is so incredible. Then you couple that with that ache. It’s really something that the world will miss very much.
Has classic country songwriting influenced the way you write songs?
Absolutely. I think the directness and the plain-spokenness and the pared-down poetry — and saying something poignant and unexpected but yet without pretense — is what my writing strives to be.
I consider you to be an economical songwriter. Every word in your songs belongs there.
I enjoy that economical [approach]. I enjoy the directness of it. I enjoy the potency of it. Really, a song is just three or four sentences. The story is endless, but you just pick two or three pieces that make you feel it.
Do you ever have to edit yourself?
Oh, my Lord, every minute of every day! (laughs)
So what does the summer hold for you?
A lot of festivals this summer. And we’re going to go to England and do some festivals over there. I’ve had two records come out in the past nine months [Night and Traveling Alone], so hopefully I’ll have a minute to take a deep breath.
Do you find that the audiences in England are different than in the U.S.?
I got a lot of radio support that I’ve never received in America in England. The BBC and Bob Harris have been so supportive to me, and I really think they are why those audiences are so sweet to me.
Do they use the term “Americana” in England?
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
I always wondered about that, with it being across the pond.
No, no, everybody loves “Americana.” I mean, who doesn’t like that vintage, pioneer, kind of manifest destiny dream? In a lot of ways, when you’re labeled as something, it can be limiting. But I think the principles and notions of that kind of romantic, handmade, do-it-yourself feel … yeah, people know what that means and, even in England for instance, gravitate to it.
The last time we talked, you were telling me about the photos you took during your time in Paris. Are you still interested in photography?
Oh, yeah. You know, I always lean on it when I’m writing. And after I’ve been on tour is when I really find that I need to look at the world and give back attention to the world. Being the center of attention, it’s a complicated thing. I think a camera is something that grounds me and brings me back, to make sure that I seek other people with a loving eye. It’s a tool in a larger picture. I’m not really a photographer. It’s just that making things is how I make sense of the world.
I was going to ask about the reward you find in that.
I think it’s in and of itself. It’s really a tool as a writer, to use your eyes. And I think also, being a writer, you spend a lot of time in your interior landscape. That can be really intense. You need to build bridges back to the world so you don’t bump your head or feel lost, like you’ll never find your way back. Photography is a very loving, gentle way to do that.
Photo courtesy of Will Sparklin.