Merritt's 2004 Lost Highway release, Tambourine, has been nominated for Best Country Album, and while the usual all-boy entourage might weary of such important topics as "the gown," "the hair" and "the makeup," fellow Carolinians Tres Chicas, the fun-loving girls in the van, can be counted on to make a party of all the planning. Merritt usually emphasizes her ironclad resistance to glitz, but she does cop to having a favorite designer. The dress, she says, is "beautiful, beautiful," declining to elaborate lest we jinx the thing.
"It's going to be wonderful to have some women on the road," Merritt says, "but that's not to say my boys aren't great company. My band is very close-knit, and they take care of me."
For her own band's part, Chica Caitlin Cary notes, "We didn't know about this whole Grammy thing when we booked this tour. Now it's like we're gonna latch on to some famous coattails, and here we go!"
Cary knows a good coattail when she sees one. An original member of Whiskeytown, she found Ryan Adams' friendship a big boost to her solo career, releasing While You Weren't Looking and I'm Staying Out to critical acclaim. In 2004, Joan Baez covered her "Rosemary Moore" on Dark Songs on a Big Guitar. "My manager keeps telling me, 'Don't worry, Caitlin, you'll be rich by the time you retire!'"
Will the Grammy nod get Merritt there sooner? It's a long shot. She could use an easier field, for one thing; fellow nominees include Loretta Lynn's project with the White Stripes' Jack White, Van Lear Rose. And while the Grammys call it "country," purists will note that Tambourine could file as readily under rock or soul. Not your slick and Wal-Mart-y commercial country pop, Tambourine is mostly lavish, sexy, brash and even loud. For the silver-throated Merritt, it's also a host of dreams come true.
"I wanted to work with George Drakoulis to produce this record," Merritt says. "That's been a dream of mine for nearly 10 years. It was definitely scary, but the people on this record are my idols. I had to follow through and believe in myself." One of those idols was Maria McKee, whose records Drakoulis has also produced. Drakoulis brought McKee in to sing backing vocals, along with the Jayhawks' peerless harmonizer, Gary Louris. The sessions also included guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers and Nashville session drummer Don Heffington (who's worked with Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Maria McKee), plus a horn section and gospel quartet.
It was an ambitious undertaking for a girl who, at the time she started dreaming of working with Drakoulis, had been writing and playing for no one but herself since the age of 15. A chance encounter with drummer Zeke Hutchins in a college creative-writing class changed all that. The day after he persuaded Merritt to give him a demo tape, he showed up in her kitchen and announced they were starting a band.
The new outfit rehearsed on the porch of the post office in the tiny North Carolina shore village Merritt calls home. Before long, they were packing crowds into clubs in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Adams, among Merritt's early fans, introduced her music to his manager, who was then helping form Lost Highway. Merritt became his first signing to the new imprint. How could he go wrong? She plays guitar as well as she sings, writes as well as she performs and could easily hold her own even in the beauty contest that is Nashville's music row.
Still, Merritt grappled with the related complexities. "I've never been your normal Nashville artist who wanted to (be a star)," she says. "At that point in my career, I really didn't think my identity was strong enough to go stand in a room with special musicians and have something sound like me in the way that we had cultivated that. We're friends," she says of her band, The Carbines. "It's an emotional support system; we've been through a lot." So it was the Carbines who backed her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose. A relatively subdued affair, it emphasized Merritt's exceptionally literate but economical songwriting and her folkier, more country-tinged music sensibility. Critics adored it, but the record-buying public was less ardent.
With Tambourine, though, Merritt took the plunge. "It's time for me to have the confidence to grow and try something new, and it's been really wonderful for the band, because now we tour more, and they've grown, too. It's a lot like being in a family, like a friendship you have to tend and cultivate."
The heavier touring schedule ultimately did take a toll on The Carbines, of which only the rhythm section now remains. "We've had two lineup changes, and I think that was natural. After five years, they take stock of their life," she says. On the plus side is the addition of guitarist Brad Rice (Whiskeytown, Backsliders), a man who favors patent leather Doc Martens over cowboy boots, and plays accordingly.
In touring Bramble Rose, Merritt found that the live sound was, well, livelier--louder and more fun. She wanted to capture that kind of energy on Tambourine. "This one is a pretty intense. I think this show is a very natural growth of where we came from. Bramble Rose is a bit more introspective. This one is both sexier and louder, so it's fun to play it live. That's what it's all about, is hanging out and playing music with your heart."
The current tour is also about playing music with your pals. Chicas Cary, Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine) and Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain) were already on the Triangle music scene when they welcomed Merritt into their midst. Lamm will miss this tour to stay home with her toddler, but Cary says the addition of Sarah Bell to the lineup will "keep our name from being a lie." (To be strictly truthful, though, none of the Chicas are Hispanic. The name came from a Raleigh bar owner who had lived in Honduras, and it just seemed to stick.)
Cary says, "In this incarnation, it's going to be Dave (Bartholomew, Caitlin Cary) on drums, our friend Jesse (Heubner, Patty Hurst Shifter) on bass, Sarah Bell on everything. She plays banjo, mandolin, keyboards, guitar, bass. Dave is gonna sing from behind the drums in a ghostly Tonya impersonation--they'll never know she's not there. We'll prop up a Tonya doll in the middle of the stage.
"We've been kind of a rock band in this weird way, much more rock than the record and the touring we did last summer," she adds. "The songs are inherently heartbreakingly sad, but we do some fun covers and there's ... energy, a good bit different from the way the record sounds. I think this will be really different, too, because the record doesn't feature a whole lot of keyboards, and Sarah's playing a lot of keys.
"It's nice, full, rich, and I don't know ... I just sort of imagine it as the desert version of Tres Chicas."