By James Calemine
The Americana/alt.country movement of the late 90s seemed like a promising thing. After being caught in a tug of war between the boy bands and grunge of that era, the idea of music rooted in country music’ss organic traditions appeared to provide a welcome respite to weary ears.
Since most of this emerging crowd worshipped at the feet of Gram Parsons (not a bad thing to do), they pined for a new Gram. One of the first to be bestowed with this honor was Ryan Adams, a Jacksonville, NC native recently “freed” from the confines of Whiskeytown.
Before too long, Adams needed his Emmylou. Enter fellow NC native, Tift Merritt. Adams helped get her signed to his label, Lost Highway, and hooked her up with his producer at that time, Ethan Johns. Everything was set for Ms. Merritt or so it seemed.
Americana, alt.country… call it what you want, became a musical ghetto. Quality artists thought they’d found a home in this genre but were trapped instead in a place that had a frustratingly limited audience. So, instead of becoming a movement, alt.country became a niche and then the aforementioned ghetto, one that held back artists like Merritt. Her first record Bramble Rose had a moderate sales impact despite glowing reviews.
Her next record was the big-sounding Tambourine, produced by George Drakoulias, who had helped the Black Crowes shape their first two lauded records. Drakoulias intended Tambourine to be a “Dusty In Memphis” statement for Merritt. Even though it netted a Grammy nomination, Tambourine failed to launch Merritt to a point where Lost Highway and she saw much reason to continue. Merritt explains:
I was touring in Europe and thought, “I’m a grown woman. I’m going to take a vacation. I’m tired.” I really was at a point where I didn’t think I had anything to say. I rented this flat with a piano that I found on the Internet, but only because I thought it would be kind of therapeutic and being alone would be good. I was very surprised when I started writing and the intensity that I was writing with because I really didn’t think I had anything to say. It was very unexpected. I guess the part of me that is kind of left alone when I’m performing all the time had a chance to have all the time it needed to catch up, which was awesome.
Another Country finds us at the beginning of Merritt’s new musical journey, one that started by stopping. While neither Bramble Rose nor Tambourine were bad records (she is, after all, a fantastic artist), both seemed stilted as if someone else’s vision of Merritt as an artist rather than her own. That left one feeling that something was missing.
Gloriously, the songs and performances on Another Country finally have an effortless feel that was lacking on her first two records. This effortlessness comes through the salve of time and experience, something Merritt could only gain from loss.
Is it country like Bramble Rose? Yes (check out the title track, Broken or Something To Me). Is it soulful like Tambourine? Yes (check out “Morning Is My Destination” or “Tell Me Something True”). The double entendre of the title says it all. She went to another country to find music that sounds like another kind of country – something soulful, simple, and always heartfelt.
Now a refugee of the alt.country scene, Merritt has found a home again, fulfilling promises that her talents always indicated. The cover picture shows her basked in sunlight signaling that a new day has come for her. As you listen, you can feel the healing within her. If you have a few wounds of your own, Another Country may help to sooth them as well.
Read my interview with Tift Merritt in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2.