“I’ve always had a taste for traveling alone,” Tift Merritt sings in the title track of her fifth album. This time around, she got to prove it, “calling the shots myself and letting myself go wherever I needed to go” at a point in time when she was a free agent without label or manager. But the song does also conclude that “Everybody here is traveling alone,” a realization that places as much value on community as iconoclasm. And Merritt put together her “dream cast” of fellow travelers to play on Traveling Alone, which found its happy home at her new label, Yep Roc. The road less taken doesn’t preclude good company.
The New Yorker has called Merritt “the bearer of a proud tradition of distaff country soul that reaches back to artists like Dusty Springfield and Bobbie Gentry,” a standard upholding that got underway in earnest with Bramble Rose, the 2002 solo debut that put her on the Americana map forever. As her sophomore album, Tambourine, was followed by Another Country and See You on the Moon, Merritt found acclaim coming not just from critics and awards orgs but her own heroes, like Emmylou Harris, who marveled that Merritt “stood out like a diamond in a coal patch.” Now a leading lady in her own right, Merritt is hardly one to hog the spotlight. She engages in dialogue with fellow artists of all disciplines on her public radio broadcast and podcast “The Spark With Tift Merritt,” bringing in fellow sojourners ranging from Patty Griffin and Rosanne Cash to Rick Moody and Nick Hornby (who devoted a chapter to Merritt in his 31 Songs book).
For Traveling Alone, Merritt knew—and got—exactly the journeymen she wanted with her on this 11-track trip: legendary guitarist Marc Ribot, Calexico drummer John Convertino, steel player extraordinaire Eric Heywood, acclaimed jazz and rock multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger, and longtime cohort Jay Brown on bass. As captured by producer Tucker Martine (known for working with the Decemberists, and one of Paste magazine’s “10 Best Producers of the Decade”) and mixed by three-time Grammy-winning engineer Ryan Freeland, the sound is both spare and luxurious. “Maybe I was bored with bells and whistles and wanted to go without them. It might have been that I didn’t have enough money for bells and whistles,” she quips. “But once you get in that sweet spot where things feel real and right, you just want to burrow down in that feeling. Nothing to hide behind, no distractions, no sense trying to be everything to everybody. There’s a beautiful economy of motion in that place.” Who wouldn’t want to tag along?