It's as much about what she doesn't have as what she does. What she doesn't have is a sound like anybody else's. Sure, there are traces of those who have gone before--a blues debt with a little Janis Joplin and Bonnie Bramlett--but she's definitely her own woman, sound wise, and a great sounding one at that. Unlike many of the whiny pretenders with country aspirations, Merritt's voice has timbre and depth.
Much has been made of the production on Tambourine with comparisons to old soul records and Muscle Shoals/Wilson Pickett-era orchestration. But only a few cuts qualify; "Your Love Made a U Turn," with a feel similar to Aretha Franklin's '68 hit "See Saw," and "I Am Your Tambourine" and "Shadow in the Way" sound like something that might have been featured on the Leon Russell-backed Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour in 1970. (That point is not lost on Merritt, who told Paste magazine that she wanted a record she could take on the road with a bunch of people onstage, and a sound "like wide open church" like the Cocker record.) But calling what Merritt is doing blue-eyed soul misses the point entirely. Maybe they ought to invent a new term for it, like soul country. The outdated alt thing is still being tossed around among those desperate to find a box to put her in, but most anything is a welcome alternative to what passes for country these days.
Merritt's stuff definitely qualifies as country. She's got the twang in her voice, and it sounds natural. The stiff rock backbeat on a lot of the tunes is what confuses the labelers, but it just emphasizes the rural flavor. It's groundbreaking stuff, comparable to what it must have been like to hear Patsy Cline for the first time.
But like anything else that's any good, picking it to pieces and analyzing it just dilutes it. "I want to shout and sing," Merritt says on "I Am Your Tambourine," "and shine, shine, shine." It's as simple as that, and it works. Enjoy.
Editor's Note: Tift Merritt's show at the Cat's Cradle is sold out; a date on Sunday, Feb. 20 at the Lincoln Theatre has been added. Visit www.lincolntheatre.com for details.