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Tift Merritt no longer lives in the South but is still inspired by her Carolina hometown.
BY ANDREW LEAHEY
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
It's been half a decade since Tift Merritt left her hometown of Raleigh, N.C., and moved to Paris.
She'd been traveling for years, playing shows with Americana artists like Ryan Adams and generating a buzz with her own music. She had always gone home between tours, though. For a songwriter whose songs always seemed to evoke the rolling countryside of Southern America, leaving North Carolina was a big deal.
You can take the girl out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the girl. Now based in New York City, Merritt said she still channels her hometown when writing albums like "Traveling Alone," her newest collection of earthy, atmospheric country-rock tunes.
"Being from the South is a huge part of who I am," she explained last week during a break in the fall tour that will take her to The Birchmere in Alexandria Oct. 8.
"I'm very intensely tied to that place in North Carolina, and I think living in New York City actually brings out my Southernness even more. I call my street 'Little North Carolina' because I know everybody."
Merritt knows music, too. Raised on the folk, country and soul records that filled her father's record collection, she's grown into Generation X's own Emmylou Harris, with a tougher edge and a louder band. Everyone from the Drive-By Truckers to Patty Griffin has invited her to join them on tour, a sign that Merritt can hold her own in a rock club as well as a folk venue.
Merritt's sound is unique, driven by acoustic guitar chords one minute and twangy, amplified riffs the next. It grooves, soothes and rocks in equal measure, and it's in particularly fine form on the new record, which hit stores this week.
"Traveling Alone" was recorded in eight days. There was little time for second guesses, and even less time for overdubs. Merritt and her band captured each song live, as though they were playing in a concert hall instead of a studio. The result is a lean, gorgeous album that logically flows from song to song like a live setlist.
"No one has asked me how my hair didn't turn gray during that week," Merritt joked, "but frankly, I was really nervous. I had to learn not to look back at each song and say, 'Hey, maybe we should put some sour cream frosting on that one.'"
At 37, Merritt has become one of Americana's biggest names, a leading lady in a genre that sometimes feels like a boys' club. She's self-sufficient, but she prefers the alchemy generated by a full band. That's what "Traveling Alone" is all about: being independent enough to stand on your own feet, but knowing you'll enjoy good company once you do.
"At the end of the day," Merritt said, "we are all traveling alone. We're accountable for our own lives and what we make of them. On the other hand, the sense of family and the beautiful friendships you have around you those are both so important. I know I can't travel without having that help along the way."
Andrew Leahey is an entertainer who usually writes in iambic pentameter.