With a 20-year-long career, seven studio albums and a Grammy nomination under her belt, within the last few years, Raleigh-born Tift Merritt has taken a deserved break. Yet, she is not remaining idle; she still plays the occasional show and works on passion projects. Before stopping in Big India, N.Y., to perform four shows in early September, Merritt will be stop over at the Cameron Art Museum on August 18 to play an afternoon and evening set.
Throughout her career, Merritt has worked and toured with many artists ranging from Elvis Costello, Jason Isbell, Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine, to classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the New York Philharmonic. Rock stalwart Don Henley covered her song “Bramble Rose,” from her debut album of the same name, on his “Cass County” album in 2015. The cover featured Mick Jagger and country singer Miranda Lambert.
With sincere, striking sounds, Merritt gives off a serene, cool vibe. Such can be heard on “Mixtape,” which combines traditional N.C. bluesy guitar riffs, sultry vocals and energetic violin. And she amps it up on “Stitch of the World,” evoking a ‘70s Stevie Nicks.
Her latest album of the same name (“Stitch of the World,” 2017 Yep Roc Records) is a love letter of sorts to her unborn child and a changing era: dealing with the divorce of musician, Zeke Hutchins and moving back to N.C. after living in New York City.
“I didn’t anticipate moving back,” she says. “I didn’t want to move again, but it turned out to be a beautiful blessing in disguise. I’m a big fan of being rooted in a place and understanding that it can take a lifetime. So it’s not much of a return home, but a part of home.”
In 2017 Merritt toured with her daughter Jean throughout the U.S. and Europe. In her raw article with Oxford American (“Bramble Road,” May 4th, 2017), Merritt talks about her breaking point. When disrespectful bar owners played AC/DC over her set and motels became a little too dark and creepy, she said to herself: “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“I had to reinvent what my work was going to look like when I took the constant aspect of being on the road out of things,” Merritt divulges. “I knew I had to become a project-based artist instead of an album-based artist. It feels good not to be a slave to the record cycle anymore. But that’s not to say my favorite thing isn’t having a beer and playing a rock show!”
Some of Merritt’s recent projects include refurbishing an old motel, working on a secret N.C. historical writing project (which she may release snippets of in the coming months) and helping organize the North Carolina Museum of Art’s (NCMA) Summer Concert 20th anniversary in 2017. Much like what CAM is doing with their concert series, NCMA combined visual art with music, and let artists set up installations on stage alongside musical instruments.
“We opened the stage so people could come and look at the artwork and instruments and gain perspective that way,” Merritt recalls. “I always like breaking the audience barrier because those roles can be overly set and constraining.”
CAM’s calm and pleasant environment is the perfect place for Merritt to access a special relationship with the audience that she strives for.
Anne Brennan, executive director at CAM, shares the same opinions as Merritt. Brennan and her staff are working to give folks a memorable experience. “A museum, if doing its job well, welcomes a visitor into a space that grants the experience of sanctuary,” Brennan describes. “With music, the focus is on bringing the participants as close physically and emotionally with the performer as possible.”
During her show, the art exhibit “Minnie, Clyde, Annie, Vollis: Outsider Art” is now on display. The four artists with completely different art styles, when they come together, tell a story of strength, individuality and innocence. Not influenced by the art market, local legends Minnie Evans, Clyde Jones, Annie Hooper and Vollis Simpson communicate a personal experience.
While maybe not at first glance, Merritt’s homegrown music style and the pioneers of outsider art have a lot in common. Both celebrate the deep-rooted mutual relationship that exists between humans and the places we inhabit. “Merritt, Clyde, Vollis, Annie and Minnie” indulge in a purely creative process, born from an innate desire to share their stories. Minnie’s vibrant drawings depict images from her spiritual dream world, while Annie’s sculptures depict biblical scenes. Clyde’s sculptures bring to life fanciful animals with ordinary objects and Vollis’ large Whirligigs fill children with awe.
Merritt has personal connections with a few of the artists in the exhibition. She wanted to interview Vollis Simpson about his work, but was unable to do so before he passed. When she first started her music career, Merritt lived in Bynum, NC—Clyde Jones’ hometown. She would frequently play at the old Bynum General Store where Clyde would be on his duct-taped lawnmower, chatting with locals and pulling pranks on outsiders.
“Clyde and the community were dear friends of mine,” Merritt recalls. “I’m happy to have the opportunity to cross paths with his work again and be reminded of those times . . . I’m always in conversation with the South and vernacular culture. What I try to do with my music is to say things that aren’t simple in a plain-spoken way. The nice thing about being a musician is you count on the music to speak for itself, and I think it does.”
Tickets for Merritt’s show on August 18 are still available on CAM’S website. The event is a fundraiser, so proceeds will go towards proving critical funds to bring under-resourced kids to CAM for field trips. Food and drink will be available, as well.