Tift Merritt

Classic echoes

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By Michael Norman  

Some young artists are slaves to their heroes. But North Carolina singer-songwriter Tift Merritt takes her devotion too seriously to simply steal or mimic.  You can hear the classic echoes of Carole King and Dusty Springfield in Merritt's Tambourine, along with hints of the roots-rock revelries of more recent trailblazers like Tom Petty, the Jayhawks and Lone Justice. These influences seem to run through Merritt's blood at the cellular level, allowing her to create music that is warm and familiar, and yet somehow entirely exciting and new.

Tambourine earned a Grammy nomination for best country album. But "country" doesn't begin to describe the variety of music on this 12-track classic. Merritt struts and stomps ("I am Your Tambourine") and raises one heck of a rock 'n' roll ruckus ("Late Night Pilgrim," "Wait It Out"). She sings sweet hymns to the silence ("Plainest Thing," "Still Pretending") and sizzles with Muscle Shoals-fueled soul ("Shadow in the Way," "Good-Hearted Man," "Your Love Made a U-Turn.")

Lyrically, Merritt is a road-weary romantic, telling smart, hard-knock tales of love, betrayal, hope and redemption. The writing is tight, vivid and sophisticated, making the whole musical package irresistible. Think of Tambourine as a signature, like Steve Earle's Guitar Town or Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

Michael Norman is Entertainment Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.