On Saturday night, Diane and I drove to the “big city,” aka Raleigh, to visit the North Carolina Museum of History, as singer-songwriter Tift Merritt was headlining the latest installment of the museum’s ongoing “Southern Songbirds” series with an event billed as “Tift Merritt Sings the Women of Country Music.” As evidenced by the title, the idea behind the concert was simple: celebrate the works of women singers who helped shape not just country music but popular music writ large.
Accompanied by a stalwart band that featured pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood, who we last saw accompanying Leslie Stevens in 2019, as well as three backup singers, Tift opened the 100-minute (give or take) show with one of her favorite songs from one of her all-time favorite albums, “Two More Bottles of Wine” from Emmylou Harris’ classic Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. She followed it with two from Bobbie Gentry, “Mississippi Delta” and “Fancy,” and then the much-covered “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which Wanda Jackson first recorded in 1956.
Also on the docket: the Carter Family by way of Linda Ronstadt (“I Never Will Marry”), which saw her and the trio of backup singers harmonize to wondrous effect; the Davis Sisters (“I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know”); Kitty Wells (“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”); Patsy Cline (“Walkin’ After Midnight”); Jean Shepard (“A Satisfied Mind”); Karla Bonoff by way of Bonnie Raitt (“Home”); Dolly Parton (“9 to 5”); and Patty Loveless (“Blame It on Your Heart”), who—aside from Tift’s own songs—was the lone post-1990 entry in the evening. I’m missing a few selections, I hasten to add. Of her own songs, she performed two: the title track to her sublime 2012 album, Traveling Alone, plus—as she joked when we saw her in 2017—the song they’ll place on her tombstone, “Bramble Rose.” She often introduced the songs with anecdotes about them.
[Update 12/13: Tift shared the setlist, along with additional notes she made about each song, here. Surprisingly, while my order was slightly off, I remembered all but one!]
It wasn’t quite the walk through country music history that I expected—not a criticism, just an admission. Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Rose Maddox, Jeannie Seely and the Carter Sisters, plus Jessi Colter and Rosanne Cash, were left unmentioned. (I’m leaving out more than few, no question. In my defense, I’m still on my first cup of coffee of the morning.) Instead, the show was a walk through the classic songs of yore that connected with Tift somehow. (You can read about her process of picking them in this Substack entry.)
The first two times we saw her, in 2010 and 2012, she was backed by three-piece bands; the last time, in 2017, was just her and Heywood. All three were mesmerizing affairs. This night was of a different stripe, obviously, but was no less magical. I always enjoy when singers share songs that inspired them—it’s a cool way to honor an influence and, too, get fans to dig up the original versions. (Too much music history goes unexplored.) Anyway, highlights of the night were many, including the opening Emmylou number and those songs that allowed Tift to show off the full range of her vocals, most notably “Walkin’ After Midnight.” She absolutely belted it. And though not the Dolly song I would’ve chosen, “9 to 5” was a spirited affair; two of the backup singers had a cute routine centered around a desk bell. I do wish, and this is just the fan in me speaking, that she had performed a few more of her own songs, though I understand why she didn’t.
For those who missed the sold-out show: It was recorded by PBS North Carolina, so should be on the airwaves at some point in the future.