Why isn’t Tift Merritt a star? She’s writes country-soul songs that can hold their own beside those of Dan Penn; sings them with a voice that can seduce with a whisper or a shout; she’s attractive and is an ingratiating, down to earth performer. But after two albums, she is still something of a secret.
The diminutive Merritt is a sparkplug on the Troubadour’s stage, scampering among her band with a broad smile on her face; leaning against lead guitarist Brad Rice for his solos, joining keyboard player Dan Eisenberg on the Wurlitzer for “Ain’t Looking Closely,” leading a call and response with her backing vocalists on the churchy “Shadow In The Way.”
Her energy is matched by her band’s soulful ferocity. Rice’s solos add colorful accents, from the Badfinger-styled slide work on “Stray Paper” to a Memphis twang on “Late Night Pilgrim.” Zeke Hutchins is a wonderfully sympathetic drummer; the way he and Merritt lock into each other has an almost intimate intensity. And when they’re joined by horns and back-up singers for “I Am Your Tambourine,” the feisty, Aretha-styled shouter that gives her second Lost Highway release its title, they sound like a powerhouse Muscle Shoals band.
While Merritt might want her man to “rattle me darling, way down inside/fill me with rhythm so fine, fine, fine,” you get the feeling that the next morning she’s telling him to get his own damn coffee. That may be a problem for country radio, a format that likes its women to be airbrushed and docile, although her Grammy nomination might change that. For those who like their woman strong, Merritt is a brew worth seeking out.