Merlefest Artist, Tift Merritt, Tells a New Story

Ever since the turn of the millennium, Tift Merritt has been a familiar voice to those who appreciate North Carolina roots music. From the time she first took the stage at Merlefest in 2000 as the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest winner, she has told stories about heartbreak, tragedy, spiritual quests, romance, and memory. Her seven studio albums are packed with slow and haunting melodies, grinding and grungy rock sounds, flirty nonchalance, soulful light gospel, and sensitive yet strong vocals punctuating the earthy poetry of her lyrics. She reflects the best artistic traditions of North Carolina story-telling. Her most recent album, Stitch of the World, is no exception.

The ten songs on the album are vintage Merritt. Heartbreaking ballads tinged with the hopefulness of healing, rockers that rumble like an old pickup truck on a hole-pocked dirt road, the delicate handling of a tender soul, and even veiled theological reflections about the ultimate meaning of the world. At times she almost whispers as she sings words like, “The thread of the world is making the sheet, From the word to the deed, from the tree to the leaf…” Her vocals highlight the poetic depth of her lyrics. As a complete work, these songs put recovery from heartbreak in the context of the larger fabric of the world. 

The opener, “Dusty Old Man,” rocks through the vision of her dusty old man who has lived and experienced “more real living than a young boy could stand.” In the best traditions of Southern story-telling, the description is earthy and raw, ironic, but deadly serious: “Calloused hand and tear stained heart, this world can't hand you what you want.” This disillusionment and the freedom of no longer suffering illusions become the threads that define Stitch of the World: “Love me enough to right my wrongs. Love me until the scars are gone.” 

“Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” and “Love Soldiers On” expose the scars of heartbreak, but refuse to give heartbreak have the last word. “Heartache” begins as a slow blues, but then moves into R&B expectancy reminiscent of the concluding tracks, “The Load Out” and “Stay,” on Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. “Love Soldiers On” is an homage to the power of love that puts heartbreak in perspective: “I know you’ve been hurt before, but it’s been beat up even more, Scars you’ve never seen before, from every country and every war.” We might face heartbreak, but if love can bear up against wars, then it can certainly push on through a breakup. No matter what, love will endure the pain that life wields.

The haunting title track seems intentionally placed at the mid-point of the record to put the stuff of life with all of its complexities in the proper context. The stitch of the world is constantly sewn from the stories that we live, calling us to freedom that weaves through our fears, our dreams, our hopes, and the pain that makes us bleed. The challenge and hope of living, then, lie in our ability to release our burdens: “You must empty your pockets of stones, That light-hearted you may go, for you must go With the stitch of the world, Into the stitch of the world.” As mystical as all of that sounds, it’s the stitch of the world, not the universe. It’s as if Merritt intentionally stays grounded in the earthiness of humanity, instead of letting the theme float away out of the atmosphere lest it float too close to the sun…which overlays “Icarus,” the next song on the album.

“Icarus” begins as the narrator finds Icarus crumpled on the ground after his ill-fated attempt to touch the sun. But, vulnerable as she finds him, she quickly sees herself reflected back: “Oh, Icarus. There's a wing down in each of us, Faster than the speed of sound inside, Everything flies.” Truly living this life involves the noblest and most idyllic aspirations that, faster than the speed of sound, can often send us crashing to the ground in disappointment. However, this is not merely about recovering from heartbreak. It’s the cycle of life that repeats itself over and over again as we experience, have children, and even eventually face our own mortality—and even then “a small hope lands where doubt once was,” a ray of hope and aspiration that what’s coming next will both heal and redeem us.

Such is the lyrical richness that dominates all of Merritt’s records, but that are in full-flower on Stitch of the World. Verses like “Every road gonna disappear. The fate of man is still unclear. So why don’t you just stay right here, Tonight, tonight, tonight,” in “Proclamation Bones,” or “A thread in a thread, I felt complete, Like lightening made by summer heat, How it came over me, the way it came over me,” in “Something Came Over Me” highlight the spiritual connection to another person that are so much of the substance of what we are as human beings. Merritt’s thesis seems to be that our souls long for, indeed require connection to other people for our deepest fulfillment.

Telling that story requires all of the lyrical and vocal tools Merritt employs on Stitch. What sets this album apart, even more than its technical aspects, is the rare combination of vulnerability and strength that first landed her on the Merlefest stage in 2000 has become fully mature in Merritt’s soulful performance. She handles her own real experiences— divorce, the birth of her daughter, and life as a musician— with great care, even as she lays them bare to the world. 

Tift Merritt will perform on Saturday at this year’s Merlefest (April 27-30) in Wilkesboro.

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