We’re almost to the end of the list… can you feel the excitement in the air?
The album at number two is Tift Merritt’s 2004 release Tambourine. This album was released at the end of August in 2004, and I still have vivid memories of this album serving as a large part of my personal soundtrack later that year at the Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville in September. I drove into Nashville listening to this album, saw Tift give an amazing performance at The Mercy Lounge that weekend, and left town knowing that Tambourine would be a steady part of my listening rotation for some time to come.
I had enjoyed Tift’s debut album Bramble Rose when it was released in 2002, but this one took me completely by surprise. For this album, Tift paired with producer George Drakoulias (Hollywood Town Hall) to craft a sound that is full of breezy country-rock riffs while also carrying a heavy dose of Dusty Springfield inspired Memphis Soul. The effect is stunning and led to Tambourine garnering a Grammy Nomination for “Best Country Album” and three nominations (Album, Song, Artist) at the Americana Music Awards & Honors.
The first sound you hear on the album is Tift’s voice as she sings the opening line of “Stray Paper.” Her vocals on this track are breathy at first, but build in intensity as her band builds an impressive country rock track around her. The intensity builds again as Tift rips through the album’s second track, the guitar and organ fueled “Wait it Out.” This is the song that most succinctly offers Tift’s mission statement for this record when she boldly announces that she, “just got to burning, and I won’t stop now.”
From there, Tift brings out the soul influences for the slow burning and horn drenched “Good Hearted Man.” She continues to explore her R&B and soul side by blasting through James Carr’s “Your Love Made a U-Turn,” and the concert staple singalongs “Shadow In the Way” and “I Am Your Tambourine.” Robert Randolph lends his Sacred Steel guitar to the latter song to take the album to lofty new heights. “Late Night Pilgrim” also pushes the pace of the album as a high energy rocker with a booming chorus that keeps Memphis in the back of your mind.
Even with all the energy and attitude present here, Tift manages to keep things grounded by also mixing in a few slower numbers like “Laid a Highway.” This down tempo tune tells of a small town that finds itself getting smaller as a major highway is built through a neighboring town. It’s easily the most traditional country tune on the album and stands in fine contrast to the bluesy “Still Pretending.” “Still Pretending” is tailor made for a slow dance. In fact, the last time my wife and I saw Tift in concert, she called for the audience to dance along as she played that song. We did… right in front of the stage.
And that brings me to the other reason this album is so special to me and so high on this list. That weekend in 2004 when I fully discovered this album was also the weekend when I met my wife for the first time. Over time, I introduced her to Tift’s music through my radio show (she used to listen to me online when we lived in different states), and eventually gave her a copy of the album. It was probably one of the first albums (outside of Patty Griffin & Scott Miller) that we truly bonded over, and we travelled from Nashville, TN to Charleston, WV to watch Tift perform in the early days of our relationship. When we got married, my wife insisted on using “Good Hearted Man*” as the song to play behind the pictures of me that were displayed during the photo montage that we showed at our rehearsal dinner and reception.
I loved the album before any of that happened… but the fact that a lot of that happened in large part due to this album makes me love it even more.
As a special bonus… here’s a YouTube vid of Tift Merritt singing “Stray Paper” on Austin City Limits.
*I don’t necessarily agree with her assessment of me, but I am deeply flattered that she feels that way.