Tift Merritt

Tift Merritt’s manager, Russell Carter, has worked with unclassifiable artists before, namely The Jayhawksm a band that has always operated somewhere between the labels of Americana, pop, rock and alt-country.

Merritt’s music is just as hard to define and, therefore, may be difficult to find its audience, but Carter thinks her time is now.

“I think Tift is on the verge of blowing up for a good reason,” he told Pollstar. “She’s done this for several years and she’s a super-talented writer, she’s a great performer, she’s gorgeous, she’s got a great band and all these things, except being gorgeous, take time.”

With two albums on Luke Lewis’ Lost Highway, Bramble Rose and Tambourine, along with oodles of good reviews and a phenomenal live show, Merritt is definitely ready for the next level.

She is wrapping up the House of Blues Concerts tour which is an acoustic showcase featuring several hard-to-label musicians including Mindy Smith, Garrison Starr and Charlie Mars. That’s not to say Merritt always plays acoustic guitar, though. She’s also used to rocking out with her Telecaster.

“I have to admit that my favorite thing is to come off stage and feel like I’ve run a marathon and to feel like I’ve really left a part of myself, physically, onstage, and I miss that,” she told Pollstar. “But I think it’s important to interpret a song in a lot of different ways. … I have a really talented band and I always try to write songs that can stand up to interpretation.”

The singer/songwriter from North Carolina found her way to Nashville’s Lost Highway because of several people, including Doc Watson and Ryan Adams.

Merritt and her band, The Carbines, formed while she was attending the University of North Carolina and became part of the state’s alt-country scene. She also sang at times with the band Two Dollar Pistols.

Eventually, Tift Merritt & The Carbines almost signed a deal with Sugar Hill. In 2000, Merritt won the Chris Austin Songwriting Award at Merlefest (Doc Watson’s tribute festival to his lost son).

“At that point, that’s really when people from Nashville, who had been attending the festival, really started to pay attention to me,” she said.

Tift Merritt

At the same time, fellow North Carolina songwriter Adams started to help out, introducing her to his manager, Frank Callari. When Callari helped found Lost Highway, he made Merritt one of the label’s first signings.

She has been booked by Frank Riley since the agent left Monterey Peninsula Artists to form High Road Touring. It’s a tight-knit group over there: Along with booking several of Russell’s artists (including the Jayhawks, Indigo Girls and The Thorns), High Road also handles Adams as well as Robert Randolph

the latter a guest musician on Tambourine (which also boasts two members of the Heartbreakers, The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris and former Lone Justice singer Maria McKee).

It was Riley, as well as Lost Highway, that eventually contacted Carter to tell him about Merritt and the possibility of taking over management duties.

“I literally went online, read about her and got the record,” the manager said. “I love her first record. What I look for in an artist is uniqueness and it just hit home as soon as I heard it. The fact that Ethan Johns produced her was a good sign. I went and saw her right away and that was that.”

“Russell is one amazing man whom I just adore,” Merritt said. “In my career, I feel really fortunate to have people around me who are very smart and who are very good at what they do. Their friendship and their character are really wonderful to be around and Russell is like that.”

As far as Riley goes, the singer was equally effusive.

“I think he has a great deal of loyalty to what [musicians are] doing and not just when they’re packing amphitheatres,” she said. “As an artist who licked the stamps on envelopes when I booked this band, I know what a tough job booking a band is. And, automatically, to walk into a club and they know you’re affiliated with Frank Riley, they know you’re something to think about and to take seriously.”

The only key left is radio.

“The challenge at radio with Tift is she’s not a pure pop singer, she’s not a country singer

she overlaps several genres,” Carter said. “She follows her muse … and it adds up to a highly original sound. Unfortunately, there’s not a radio format that specializes in highly original music, but she is finding fans in radio land.”

Americana and public radio have embraced her, the manager said. CMT is playing the video for her single “Good Hearted Man” and hopefully, Adult Contemporary will catch on.

“She’s got a headline tour in January and February, then we’ll probably package her with another artist or two that make sense,” Carter said. “People who see her are absolutely stunned, and the press totally gets it. You can’t read an article on Tift that isn’t a rave. There’s a very good buzz throughout the industry and among the fans who’ve discovered her.

“All we need to do is expand upon that and we’re home free.”