Tift Merritt burst on the Americana scene 10 years ago poised for stardom with a beautiful voice, a warm and irresistible persona, and a dynamic stage presence. But she never wrote "that hit", radio died, the music industry crumbled, and she was too smart, NPR-like and too hard to pigeonhole to break through in a Z95 / American Idol world.
Despite 4 critically acclaimed records, files full of fawning national press, national TV appearances and an Austin City Limits DVD, last year the North Carolina native found herself dropped by her major label and her manager, and back to square one, traveling alone as it were.
So Tift did a very smart thing - wrote a series of songs exploring feelings of things breaking down and things picking up, and went into a studio in her new home of New York City and quickly recorded them. If you want to make a great record in just 8 days, my advice would be to enlist the A team like Merritt did here - one of the very best guitarists in the business Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Joe Henry), drummer John Convertino (Calexico), and multi-instrumentalist Eric Heywood.
The resulting Traveling Alone is the best overall work of Merritt's career, a deceptively simple record, warmly produced by Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Laura Veirs). Martine puts the vocals front and center which is where they should be on anything Tift Merritt voice ever gets near. Merritt has learned to use her voice more subtly in better service to her songwriting, which has also steadily improved over the course of her career.
Certainly one of the highlights is the title track:
Also, the gently rocking "In the Way":
Tift does a great duet "Drifted Apart"with fellow Tar Heel Andrew Bird who matches her gentle voice for gentle voice like Roy Orbison singing with Emmylou Harris, simply beautiful:
One more, "Sweet Spot", this one live in a radio studio:
Traveling Alone will make a great many best of 2012 lists, including mine. Even the most casual fan of Tift Merritt needs to go buy this record now. And for anyone who has not discovered Tift Merritt before, this is the place to start.
Artist web page: Tift Merritt