Songwriter Special Shines a Light on the SFC

Carolina Performing Arts’s new season began with some special selections of Americana music to honor the Southern Folklife Collection’s 25th birthday.

As important as it is to preserving cultural history, much of it musical, it seems like the Southern Folklife Collection, housed in UNC-Chapel Hill’s handsome Wilson Library, should have been around much longer than the 25 years it celebrated last weekend, as Carolina commenced its fall semester. Carolina Performing Arts kicked off the weekend with a super double New Orleans program, then presented American music legends Merle Haggard and The Strangers in Memorial Hall on Aug. 23. Leading off was North Carolina luminary Tift Merritt, with her sideman Eric Heywood. Some of her songs may be legends one day, too.

Merle Haggard. At 77, the highway's still his home. Photo: Myriam Santos.

Merle Haggard. At 77, the highway’s still his home. Photo: Myriam Santos.

I missed Johnny Cash; I missed George Jones, though not for lack of trying. I never figured to hear Merle Haggard at this late stage. It was fascinating. The man has lived through many of the dramatic tropes that drive country music, and has not only survived to a worthy age, but has written songs from his experiences that remain among the most recognizable among classic country songs. Beginning in the 1960s and carrying right on, touring with The Strangers most of that time, he has produced tens of albums of his own songs; recorded some extraordinary work with George Jones and Willie Nelson; and released tribute albums like his ineffable pearl of a collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs. His voice is still amazingly strong–no quaver until 3rd song from the end. He’s lean and tough and wears his hat and shades on stage. He’s a little ornery, and a little blasé, as a band leader, but the realest songs of the set were the sweetest ones.

Among the nine band members are his wife and youngest son. It’s a fine band, but almost too practiced. There were some hot moments involving the pedal steel and the saxophone (an utterly thrilling sound combination), but overall, the performance was neat and pat, with the register of hits well represented (lots of train songs). They still resonate, though, and to hear the writer sing them was a bit like hearing Ferlinghetti read from A Coney Island of the Mind–quite unexpected, and a treat.  From Chapel Hill, Haggard’s buses set off to take the plaintive poetry to the Ryman Auditorium, then on extended wanderings up and down the continental center. Merle Haggard and The Strangers will play at county fairs, casinos, civic centers, and Austin City Limits before cruising back to California in December. The man commands a crowd from fancy collegiate art houses as well as more modest venues because he just sticks to the plain truth, and doesn’t sweeten up the jabs. He taps into some deep longings, from “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” to the haunting plea of “Big City”–“big city turn me loose and set me free, some where in the middle of Montana…”

Haggard closed the Memorial Hall show with the 1969 “Okie from Muskogee,” at once a thrilling paean  to small-town patriotism and belonging (that rising praise song of names at the end!), and a contemptuous disparagement of the anti-Viet Nam War counter-culture. Hearing it live in Memorial gave me a very odd feeling. Merle Haggard would not have been so welcome on UNC campus in 1969 or 1970, when “Okie” won the Country Music Song of the Year and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” came out.

But in 2014, the hall was packed, and there were more than a few western hats in audience. I may have been the only one to feel this way, but it made my hackles rise to hear Haggard dedicate the song “to all the warriors.” (Presumably those would be only the American warriors.) And near me, a pale, skinny, bookish boy who might have been 20, a boy unburdened by the travails of the 20th century, raptly mouthed all the words to a song written decades before he was born. ” We still fly Old Glory down at the courthouse in Muskogee Oklahoma USA!

He looked like he was seeing salvation.

Turn turn turn…the times they are a changin’.

Tift Merritt’s from Raleigh, and went to Carolina–though she was at pains to correct the introduction of her as “an alum.” She swore to the audience, though, that by this time next year, she’d have finished those nine hours and have become a college graduate–but she’d still throw her clothes on the floor and wear red lipstick. Hey, the girl–she’s not but 39–can do whatever she wants to, as long as she keeps writing songs. As anyone who’s seen her knows, she’s always a lady, no matter how hard she may be rocking out and sleeping late.

Merritt is a versatile and daring musician and writer. Since her delicious 2002 album Bramble Rose, she’s done well enough recording and touring to get to keep doing it, pretty much as she wishes. She collaborates with various artists (her Duke Performances-commissioned collaboration with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein resulted in a haunting album on Sony Classical), but like many writers, requires solitude. Her latest album, Traveling Alone, is on Yep Roc.

Although Merritt gave one of the best electric concerts I’ve ever seen and heard, at the NC Museum of Art amphitheater–her first big-venue concert at home after the success of Bramble Rose–she is really at her best in more intimate settings, with instrumentation that allows easy understanding of her poetic lyrics. Memorial Hall isn’t really intimate, but on the 23rd, Merritt and Eric Heywood created a sense of small and close, nestling themselves well-downstage from the phalanx of amps, monitors and instruments belonging to Haggard’s band.

Heywood is a perfect accompanist to Merritt. His pedal steel is lyrical, nuanced far beyond the norm, and he was almost as compelling on guitar. They played a range of work from the last 12 years, including the wise title song of the latest album. Tift was joined for one song–one ravishing song–by her longtime bandmate Jay Brown on harmony vocals. It happened to be “Bramble Rose,” written by a slim-built big-hearted young woman who was still being ignored while singing in bars. With its sad brave repeating line, “a real good woman that nobody knows,” it couldn’t be written today. TIft Merritt, real good woman, is known all over.  But someday, the people may have forgotten that lovely song, and that’s why we need the Southern Folklife Collection. So that the music never falls silent and unknown in history’s heavy mist.

Songwriter and musician Tift Merritt. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Songwriter and musician Tift Merritt. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Angels of NIGHT: Tift and Simone at the First Presbyterian

Tift Merritt. Photo: Duke Performances

Tift Merritt. Photo: Duke Performances

Tift Merritt, rocking Americana singer-songwriter from Raleigh, and Simone Dinnerstein, spell-weaving classical pianist, had met briefly during a Gramophone magazine interview, but it took Duke Performances‘ impresario Aaron Greenwald to coax the two musicians into a collaborative project. The two passionate and exacting women found a shared sea of music beyond the borders of their madly different worlds, and created Night, which premiered in Duke’s Reynolds Theater in January, 2011. I was lucky enough to be there, and you can read my review of the premiere in full here.

Tift and Simone (I’m sorry, I just can’t maintain news-style formality for these musicians who are practically family around my house, we have so many albums by both of them) continued to work the piece, a flow of music and song, of energy, love and curiosity, into a something a little more manageable, and the refined version was released last month on Sony Classical, Simone’s label (Tift’s on Yep Roc, uh huh). They’re now touring the show, and Duke Performances brought them back to Durham with it–but not to Reynolds. Instead, they performed at the beautiful and acoustically vibrant First Presbyterian Church, where I was lucky to attend the first of two shows on April 4.

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo: Duke Performances

Simone Dinnerstein. Photo: Duke Performances

Well. The 7 p.m. show was sold out, and on a night teeming with icy rain, it appeared every one showed up–from Duke music honchos to dudes in cowboy hats, and lots and lots of women from a spectrum at least as wide. It was an exemplary audience, unusually quiet during the music, and unrestrainedly appreciative between and rapturous at the concert’s conclusion. You rarely feel that much love in the room…maybe it’s Tift who brings it. The last time I remember so much love bouncing around the venue was at her first big local concert, at the NC Museum of Art Amphitheater many years ago.

Thursday was  another of those magic nights, when the music is beyond sweet and all expectations are surpassed. This is partly due to the wonderful sound in the church–the huge glossy Steinway has never sounded so clear in Reynolds, and a singing voice has all the room it needs to soar–but more to the greater intimacy between the performers. They were so aware of each other, so connected emotionally, that the music poured out with unusual beauty. The joyous wonder on their faces when something difficult went so very right increased the pleasure of hearing it.

Night has changed a bit over the last two years, and the stage show is a little different from the album. The album is very fine, but it does not begin with Simone playing the lovely Robert Schumann piece, “In the Evening,” which is a shame. She opened the first “set” with that elegant composition, then the set alternated between her and Tift, with her beat-up guitar and scuffed boots. There were no awkward pauses this time: the last piano note merged seamlessly into the first guitar strum.

Tift has gained so much control over her voice in two years that calling her a pop singer doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe we can call her a chanteuse. One of the more thrilling songs was the pair’s rendition of Nina Simone’s arrangement of the Billie Holiday classic, “Don’t Explain.” Compared to her singing of it in the 2011 performance, Tift has become more powerful, her voice more definite–and Simone has loosened up to find the jazz in the piano accompaniment. It was also flat wonderful to hear harmonica + Steinway.

On “Wayfaring Stranger,” Tift let the sound billow up to the rafters, giving us just enough of the coffee-cigarettes-whisky burr in her voice to keep it real. Another surprise was her taking the piano bench and belting out a song from there as she “pawed” the keys. “It takes a special kind of courage” she said, to play piano around Simone. I guess so. But you could hear that Tift has brought out a new fearlessness in Simone, too, when she sat back down and totally rocked out on some Bach. Even she looked a little surprised.

She also played Daniel Felsenfeld’s The Cohen Variations, based on Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Suzanne.” This was where the acoustic quality of the room made such a noticeable difference. I had remembered this piece as slightly muddy, and had wondered why such a demanding aesthete had chosen it. Now I understand–the hard surfaces in the church sanctuary gave it the ringing clarity and crispness it needs. The Elizabethan song “I Gave My Love an Apple” was also well-served. With Tift strumming and singing (without the microphone, so nice), Simone reached into the piano and plucked the strings, and the sound was breathtakingly lovely.

Night ends with the promise of day, as Tift lets loose on her and Simone’s arrangement of the great Johnny Nash song from 1972. “I can see clearly now the rain has gone/I can see all the obstacles in my way…it’s gonna be a bright bright bright bright sunshiny day!” The ladies left the stage, but the roaring, stamping crowd demanded an encore. Before they purred through a Gabriel Faure art song (maybe they”ll record an album of French songs!), both artists admitted they had no idea how they were going to repeat the show in 45 minutes, let alone top it. It was a great one, no doubt about it, and every heart was bright with the music. But outside, it was still night, and another eager audience poured in to receive the blessing of song.

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