Tift Merritt picked up the cover of her 2002 album, “Bramble Rose,” and gazed at it. Laughing a bit, she contemplated her 27-year-old self, pensively looking back over her shoulder. “Bramble Rose” was Merritt’s debut album for the major label Lost Highway Records, and the music industry was very different back then.
“That was my first photo shoot ever, and I was shy and sweet as well as somewhat steel-willed,” she remembered. “There were budgets back then, they’d gotten a lot of clothes and the photographer was going for whatever he was going for. ‘Put your hair up,’ he said. ‘OK, lay on the floor; cross your legs; and we need a backless shirt.’ It had taken 35 seconds for him to make me the exact opposite of the songwriterly woman I hoped to be. I was sure I looked just like Shania (Twain), and I started to cry. I put my hair up and my own clothes back on, and we took this picture.”
Merritt says she doesn’t like looking back, but it seems appropriate right now. After nearly a decade in New York City, she recently moved back to Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood. She’ll mark the occasion of her return Friday at Cat’s Cradle with a show centered on “Bramble,” reuniting most of the band she recorded it with.
But there’s a fraught side to it, too, because of the absence of Zeke Hutchins – Merritt’s former drummer and ex-husband, from whom she split in late 2013. She has since moved on and is expecting her first child in late April; the father is Eric Heywood, who has recorded and toured with Merritt, Son Volt, Jayhawks, Alejandro Escovedo and many other artists in the Americana universe.
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Two years later, Merritt still struggles when talking about Hutchins. They had been playing music together since the late 1990s, meeting and forming their first band while Merritt was studying at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Yeah, it’s hard with Zeke,” she said. “That’s … a huge, sad thing. I think he and I needed to grow from having a band together into being a family. But … we didn’t make it.”
Henley’s ‘Bramble Rose’
Given Merritt’s pregnancy, chances are good that if you miss Friday’s show, it will be a while before you see her onstage again. Friday’s set will include all 11 songs from “Bramble Rose” – though not in the same order as the record – as well as a few new songs from her in-progress next album, which has been recorded but not yet mixed (and will probably be released in early 2017).
One reason for Merritt going back to “Bramble Rose” now is the unexpected spotlight provided by Eagles singer/drummer Don Henley. Last fall, Henley’s latest album, “Cass County,” led with a cover of the title track as the first song.
Even better, Henley enlisted a couple of high-profile guests to sing on it. Merritt was playing in Andrew Bird’s band when she got the news, via email while on tour last summer.
“It was a very kind, very long email from Don Henley,” she said. “The first paragraph, he told they’d cut the song. The next told me about Mick Jagger singing on it, and the one after that was about Miranda Lambert singing on it, too. My jaw was literally on the table. Hearing it was pretty trippy. I drank a lot that night. Had a good time, did some dancing.”
“Cass County” hasn’t been a huge hit, but it’s sold respectably – about 230,000 copies in the U.S. – at a time when mailbox money should come in handy for Merritt.
“It will help some this year,” she said. “It won’t buy a house or anything, but it will give me a couple of months with my child. It’s a nice tribute to that song, and very validating as a writer.”
Happy to be back
As for the other 10 songs on “Bramble Rose,” revisiting them has been interesting for Merritt. She’s still proud of the album. All the same, it was a very long time ago.
“I can’t believe it’s been 14 years,” Merritt said. “Especially when I look back at the writing. A few songs, I go, ‘Wow, how’d I write that?’ But others are more, ‘Oh my God, that really needs some editing.’ Still, I’m happy to see an evolution. From a personal standpoint, I remember the struggles back then; things that happened in the studio, the first review we got, the van breaking down.”
Meantime, she’s still wondering how she’ll balance motherhood and art after the baby arrives – not to mention getting used to being back in a place where one spends a lot of time in the car. But she’s happy to be back in the Triangle. Merritt has stepped right into the orbit of the Cook Brothers, ex-Megafaun members Brad and Phil, recently appearing on stages alongside them and Hiss Golden Messenger.
Coming back also puts her in physical proximity to the inspiration for the song “Bramble Rose.”
“I haven’t been home in such a long time, but the actual bramble rose I wrote that song about would bloom in July,” she said. “I’m really curious to see if it will still be there by then. It backs up to Oakwood Cemetery, a weed near the house I was living in. If it’s still there, I kind of want to dig it up and send it to Don Henley. I hope it’d survived. But I’ll have to wait until July.”
Who: Tift Merritt performs “Bramble Rose” (Alexandra Sauser-Monnig opens)
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Details: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com