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In Studio with Tift Merritt
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Tift Merritt in studio at UNC-TV

Born in Houston, Texas, and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Tift Merritt is a country girl through and through. In 2000, Merritt won the MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Two decades, nearly a dozen albums, countless appearances and a shelf full of prestigious awards later, Merritt has become a mainstay of both the country music and singer-songwriter guilds. Enjoy some highlights from our time with Tift Merritt, and be sure to catch her performance, Thursday, September 12, at 10 PM, on UNC-TV.

UNC-TV: You were born in Houston and moved at a young age. How old were you when you moved to North Carolina?

Tift Merritt: There’s such an amazing lineage of Texas songwriters, and I certainly have some Texas in me, but I’m a North Carolina songwriter. I have been here so long that I can’t remember anything else.

How did your time studying creative writing at UNC help shape your music?

Well, I actually just finished my degree a month ago. With college, I had a real push/pull—I really didn’t feel like anybody could teach me how to be an artist. That was something that I had to figure out for myself, and on some level, that is true. I have always been a writer first. I come to the microphone, hopefully, because I have something I believe in that’s worth saying or worth singing. The creative writing program at UNC gave me a community and people to look up to and people to be in conversation with. That context, I’m so grateful for it. It really was what allowed me to bloom. I also ended up studying American Studies, which I didn’t know existed as a field of study. That allowed me to look at culture over time and sort of find my own context while looking at how other artists functioned within the problems of their time. Those lines of inquiry are things that I continue to follow.

Your music is difficult to put into a specific category, and you credit that to your father’s music taste. What kind of country would he listen to? What does country bring to the table in your own music?

We definitely had Dolly Parton records that we sang along with. I think what ties me most to country music is that I play in a very rhythmic style. I believe in the rhythm of guitar as a member of the rhythm section and then over top of that, a narrative-driven, plain-spoken story. I think that is certainly a pillar of country music. The same can be said of gospel music and blues, and these are all fingers of the same hand. I think that simple storytelling is a real binding in country music.

There is often an overlap between country music and singer-songwriters. What makes a country song unique?

I don’t know that I know the answer to what makes a country song a country song. I think for me, I have a Southern accent and I’m a songwriter, so that gets blurry. I’m immediately associated with country or have always been because of my accent. At the same time, I’ve never fit so much in the modern country box because I am always trying to push some musical edges and reinvent form a little bit. I’m always taking little pieces from other genres and comparing them to country music to see what I can learn. I believe so profoundly in plain-spoken storytelling, and I think that is what binds me most to Maybelle Carter. I think it’s a great question. The singer-songwriter movement really came alive in the ’60s and '70s where [artists] said, “Okay, I’m going to write this song about my internal life and I’m going to play it with these simple elements.” That is descendent from country music.

Descendants of music don’t have to hold themselves to the same shape to still have those things in their DNA. I think that’s really important to remember today because music is so post-genre in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lineage or pay tribute to people who really exploded this form in the beginning.

Do you have a favorite country song? Why?

There are so many different beautiful country songs that have meant so much to me at different times in my life. I sort of built the early part of my life to pay tribute to Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Kitty Wells, and Bonnie Raitt. That sort of earthy brand of country rock and roll. I can listen to those early albums and sing every single note on there. You know, when people ask me my favorite song, it usually ends up coming back to something that I sang in my childhood with my father because I think it held really unspeakable meaning. We used to sing Dolly Parton. We used to sing “If I Needed You,” the Townes Van Zandt song. But that doesn’t even cover the myriad of songs that have been my companions and my friends.

What is the first song from your catalog someone should listen to?

I think "Traveling Alone" is a really good place to start. I’ve always wanted to be a career artist and not somebody who had one good song and that was it—although that’s sometimes a much more profitable way to go. I am a career artist, so I hope that my albums all have depth and growth.

I’m particularly proud of the last two. I think "Traveling Alone" is a good place to start as a song, but I believe in albums, so maybe listen to the whole album all the way through if it’s not so much to ask.

My music is about trying to find the plain-spoken truth and trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, and I think those things are there to be found. I am a writer first. I enjoy that life as much as I do my life on stage, and I always hope to be real.

Don't miss In Studio: Tift Merritt, Thursday, September 12, at 10 PM, on UNC-TV.