Tift Merritt isn’t so sure about the barbecue here in Kansas City.
The North Carolina singer/songwriter has a sister-in-law from the metro area, and Merritt said they have a good little family rivalry going over whose barbecue is better.
“I’m not going to tell you where I land on that,” she said. “You guys are just going to have to tell me where to go to taste this mysterious barbecue that’s better than North Carolina’s.”
(Merritt’s Twitter is @tiftmerritt if you’re inclined to tweet suggestions to her, but mind your manners. We are Kansas City, after all.)
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She’s fresh off a tour of the U.K., and she’s a new mom to boot. When we talked by phone the other day, she put 9-month-old daughter Jean in a baby sling, walked around her neighborhood and chatted about records, books and becoming a parent.
“I wasn’t sure I would love being a mother,” she said. “But I’m totally cut out for it and enjoying it. It’s a little bit like finding the thing you were looking for all along. It releases you from a lot of things, and it also fills you with a lot of happiness and joy and love, and I think that’s a lot of what music is.”
If you haven’t heard Merritt, she sounds like she’s from the same musical neighborhood as Emmylou Harris and Maria McKee/Lone Justice. Over her career she has worked or toured with Elvis Costello, Gregg Allman, Jason Isbell, Andrew Bird, Iron & Wine, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the New York Philharmonic. Her 2004 album, “Tambourine,” was nominated for a Grammy for best country album (it lost to Loretta Lynn’s Jack White-produced “Van Lear Rose”).
Don Henley of the Eagles not only covered her song “Bramble Rose” on his “Cass County” album last year, but he also asked Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert to perform on the track.
Merritt said hearing that recording was a big-time “wow.”
“We definitely had some beers and danced around the room to that song,” she said. “I think the best thing to do in those moments is to turn to the people in your life who have believed in you when there was no reason to believe in you, held you when you were in tears and said, ‘Keep going.’ You turn to those people and say, ‘Thank you for believing in me.’ ”
Merritt’s newly released “Stitch of the World” is her sixth studio album, and it came together around the time her marriage to Zeke Hutchins was coming apart. She’s now in a relationship with Jean’s father, musician Eric Heywood.
“It was a really emotional time of my life, and I honestly didn’t always have perspective,” she said. “I was just making what I could out of the pieces that I had at the time. That was a little bit scary to not sometimes know what I was doing, wondering if I was giving too much of myself or not giving enough.”
Merritt said after she thought she had completed the album, she had a friend listen to it. He told her it was missing something.
“He said, ‘I don’t hear a song that’s really telling the story of what happened (with the divorce), and I think you need to be brave enough to write that,’ ” she said.
That song is “Eastern Light,” a song she said she loves despite the difficulty she had in writing it. The song’s dour breakup narrative and airy instrumentation create a fully realized world of a character whose life has come crashing down around her.
“And still my shadow is waiting for you/as it always will do/Hanging around and looking behind me/so that you can find me/in the Eastern Light.”
Merritt studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she started making music — specifically the “Bramble Rose” album — she was still writing short stories.
“I wasn’t that great at it,” she said. “I wrote really long songs with a lot of words. I mean, I believe in them, but it’s a task for the music to uphold that. I really am better at that three-and-a-half minute form. I don’t think I could write short stories now because I really love that short form.”
Merritt said she was looking forward to the tour (KC is the first stop stateside) because with some nanny time, she might get time to read.
“I have about 20 books on my nightstand that I have to catch up on,” she said.
She namechecks Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Anne Carson and Jack Gilbert among her favorite writers. The song “My Boat” on “Stitch of the World” is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s poem of the same name, a work Merritt said was begging to be sung.
“My band of artists that I love, they’re really important to me in a deeply personal way,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like I claim them as my buddies, but I sit at the table with their work when I sit at my table to work.”
Her muse of the moment, however, is her baby girl. While Merritt listens to Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and the like, Jean has her own favorites.
“She likes the music her parents sing to her,” she said. “We sing a song, ‘Everybody knows/you have to wear clothes/that’s how it goes/Jean.’
Merritt laughs and says, “That’s an original.”