The Bramble Rose (or “How Tift Merritt Broke Up My Band”)

Tift MerrittFrankly, I can’t remember the last time I went out to see a live show (well, one that wasn’t free to the public, anyway). I’m sure it wasn’t that long ago, but money hasn’t exactly been plentiful these past couple of years, so I haven’t really been that inclined to go donating large chunks of my hard-earned cash to Ticketmaster.

This month, however, has proved to be an anomaly. First item of note: my boss was kind enough to donate to my worthy cause a ticket to see the Alabama Shakes at the House of Blues on Friday the 5th, which, if I may say, was a pretty damn good show. But, as this post isn’t about that, I’ll move on.

Even more odd (and more relevant to this post), a few days before that I had won a pair of concert tickets on the radio. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was listening to “Sunday Morning Country with Cousin Kate”, an EXCELLENT show on local Boston College station WZBC. (If you’re in the Boston area, I would recommend you make it regular listening. If you’re not, they keep the past two weeks’ worth of shows online, so you’ve got no excuse …. you can listen any time you’d like!) After a particularly good set of tunes, Cousin Kate suddenly announced that if you heard a Tift Merritt song in the next set and were caller number five, you would win tickets to see Tift in concert at Johnny D’s in Somerville. As I consider myself a Tift Merritt fan, this definitely got my attention, and when I heard the unmistakable sound of her voice begin to ring out, I jumped on my phone (not literally, of course) and dialed the station’s number.

The phone started ringing, and Kate picked up, telling me I was caller number three. “Well, crap,” I thought. No reason to bother calling back … if I was three, statistically, how could I possibly call back in time to be five?

Still, my finger hit “redial”.

Now here’s the odd part. You ever have that thing happen where your phone indicates that it’s dialing, but you don’t hear anything? And then the time starts ticking on your display, as if someone’s picked up and you’re already talking, but you still can’t hear anything? Well, if you haven’t, consider yourself lucky. It’s infuriating. Even more so when you’re trying to win tickets….

Now my phone says I’m connected, but there’s no sound….I should be talking to someone, but I hear only silence. So I do what calm, rational people usually do when this happens: yell frantically into my phone. “HELLO? HELLO?? HELLOOOOOOOOOOOOO???”

And because the only way it could possibly get worse is if you can suddenly hear the other person but they still can’t hear you, that’s exactly what happens.

“Hello? WZBC … hello?”

“HELLLLOOOOOOO?????? HELLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOOO???????”

So I’m pretty sure of two things right now. One, I think I’m actually, somehow, the right number caller to win these tickets. Two, because of my stupid phone, I’m about to lose these tickets. Then, a miracle.

“Oh, hello! You’re caller number five!”

She can hear me now. Sweet.

Anyway, that’s a long route to travel to make the point that I won tickets to see Tift Merritt on the radio. But you’re never getting those minutes of your life back now, so you’ll just have to live with it.

"Bramble Rose" Album CoverI can’t remember the first time I heard Tift Merritt, but I do know that I was impressed from the moment I did. Her voice, capable of both tender whispers and powerful shouts, is one of those unique instruments that you hear once and recognize it instantly from that point forward. The songs are great too, which is definitely a plus, but it’s the voice that wraps around them that makes it all so unique and special. There’s an intimacy in the way she sings, especially on the down-tempo numbers, that makes you feel like she’s sitting right in front of you with her guitar, singing directly to you. Never heard Tift before? I recommend you start here, with the first track from her first record “Bramble Rose”: “Trouble Over Me”.

Anyway, the first time I saw Tift Merritt live was the only time I’d ever seen her, on the tour for that first record. I had purchased the CD a few months earlier and wore it out (well, you really can’t wear out CDs, I suppose, so that’s outdated terminology), and, on the strength of what I heard and loved, I bought a ticket to see the show. Honestly, though, I’m not sure I was prepared for what I experienced that night at Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia.

And since we’re now getting to the main story behind this post, let me give you a little bit of background. I was in a band at this time that I had formed with an old high school friend of mine. I always thought that he and I would find our careers in music together, playing gigs, releasing CDs, and climbing the music industry ladder to success over time. In addition to being friends, we both had the same love of music history and trivia, and I thought we were both pretty good songwriters. It seemed that with just a bit of effort and luck, we could most certainly carve out some sort of success with our band and really make a go of it, as we had always talked about.

Unfortunately, without getting into too much personal detail, let’s just say that I was sadly mistaken. My friend went off to college to become an engineer, and, although the band started back up after he returned, I really don’t think he took music seriously after that. Sometimes I thought we were both still in the game, and that we were working towards similar goals, but over time I felt a large chasm grow between us. Whenever we had band practices, he seemed withdrawn and unengaged, and I began to think he just didn’t want to do it anymore. It seemed to me that the group was some sort of strange unwanted obligation to him, rather than the invigorating, life-changing experience it had always been. And so the band staggered forward, containing an unspoken (most of the time, anyway) undercurrent of tension, and it was really starting to become no fun. I wanted my friend back and pushed hard at his apathy. He found me, I’m sure, to be an overbearing prick, and withdrew further. Sure, we were starting to get more gigs as a band, but the tension was always there, and that made things hard for everyone.

And so it was that I bought my ticket to see Tift Merritt and traveled down to Virginia for the show. I took a spot near the stage, waited for her arrival with anticipation, and when that musical dynamo hit the stage, it was simply awesome. She rocked, she rolled, she belted, she whispered, and had everyone in the club dancing and singing and smiling. The energy was just pouring off the stage and devouring every person in that audience, and it made me feel great. I was happy, and I could tell that the band was happy. They looked like they were having the time of their lives … and that’s when it hit me.

Music is supposed to be fun.

I thought to myself, “This is what being in a band is supposed to feel like. Not misery. Not tension. Not arguments and cutting comments under your breath. Not indifference or disdain. But FUN. It’s supposed to be fun and make you feel good.”

And at that moment, I knew that my time in my band was over. I was simply wasting my life and my time, spending however many hours a week rehearsing, practicing, playing music … but having no fun. It just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Maybe I could go solo. Or form another band. Or just quit doing music for a while and give myself some time to reflect. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do at that point, but I knew what I wasn’t going to do anymore.

And so it came to pass on that fateful night so many years ago, that the wonderfully talented singer/songwriter Tift Merritt broke up my band.

Tift Merritt Live

Eric Heywood, Tift Merritt, and Jay Brown

So … here we are about a decade later, and I finally had another chance to go see Tift live in concert. As expected, it was a great show, although not as rip-your-face-off rocking as the one at Iota. (However, it must be said that Johnny D’s is a sit-down dinner-type joint, while Iota was a stand up small bar-type venue which lent itself more to ‘loud and rocking’…) Still, solid performances, great music, fun audience interactions, and fabulous pedal steel guitar courtesy of Eric Heywood. (Always a plus, in my opinion.)

So the show’s over, and I’m putting on my coat. Mere moments away from turning around and heading for the door, I suddenly see Tift and her bassist come out of the back and start to make their way across the club. Considering where I’m standing, it’s obvious to me that she’ll be passing close by shortly, and that I may be able to say something to her. It’s that moment that all fans hope for: you go see an artist whose work you admire, and you get a chance to express your appreciation. An ever-so-brief tête-à-tête with the star of the show….how exciting (and, may I add, nerve-wracking)! What should I say?

Well, as she strode towards me, I quickly came up with a line or two in my head. My little speech went something like this: “Hello Tift! Great show tonight! Just wanted to let you know that I saw you on your very first tour, and it was an amazing show that night too. Thanks for all the great music!”

I mean, nothing Shakespearean in nature, obviously, but it would do the job just fine.

Problem was that Tift wasn’t looking at me. She was headed right for me, but kept her head down. I couldn’t make eye contact to indicate I wanted to say something, and I felt awkward just blurting out something as she passed, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Finally, as she walked right in front of me, she raised her head and looked at me. My lead-in time was gone. I had a half second to say something as she passed by. Quick! Think of something! Start talking! SAY. SOMETHING.

“Good job!”

I recoiled in horror as the words fell out of my mouth, dropping straight to the carpet with a thud. What the hell was THAT? “Good job”? “Good job”????? That’s something you say to your eight year old if they clean their room up like you told them … it’s NOT something you say to a talented artist who just put on a great show for a couple hours! I wondered how I could possibly do anything more stupid than utter the phrase I just uttered, when I quickly found out.

I heard myself weakly mumble the same phrase again to the bass player trailing behind her, not wanting him to miss the incredible gift of my amazing eloquence.

Idiot.

Come to think of it, maybe there’s a reason I don’t go to live shows anymore….

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6 Responses to “The Bramble Rose (or “How Tift Merritt Broke Up My Band”)”

  1. Excellent post! Keep working on those snappy, clever one-liners and maybe your next two-second conversation with an artist will end more to your liking. 🙂

  2. If that’s the tour I think it was (ha. hahaha.) I think it may have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime little shows with amazing energy. I saw her at the Birchmere a couple of years ago and it was a similar shift in pace, although she still plays better than I do anything, so whatever.

    Sometimes “Good job” is the nicest thing any of us can hear on a given day. Better than “You suck,” anyway, yeah? Projecting. 🙂

    • I’m pretty sure it’s the tour you think it was. ;). And thanks for the kind words about “Good job”, and you may be right…..but it still felt stupid when I said it. And you know how I LOVE feeling stupid.

  3. Preston Bealle Says:

    Tift is generous and real and you could’ve just said “Hi, can I talk to you for a second?” And she would’ve stopped right there.

    • I have no doubt that you are right … and perhaps I should have done just that. But I guess some of us just get a little flustered and nervous in situations like that, and she was walking with someone, and I felt awkward interrupting. I think sometimes we forget that musicians are just regular people too and don’t mind chatting with fans who have come to their shows. Hopefully next time I can take your advice!

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