Tift Merritt was born in Houston, Texas on January 8, 1975, and grew up in North Carolina. Her father, a one-time folk musician and singer, taught Tift to sing harmony when she was a child, then later passed on to her the rudiments of guitar playing. Her early musical influences included punk and alternative rock bands, as well as less abrasive artists like Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris.
Tift continued to hone her musical skills throughout her teens, and by the mid-’90s she was playing rhythm guitar and singing with a local band called the Two Dollar Pistols. She began to build a name for herself in North Carolina’s alt-country music scene (centered around Chapel Hill and Raleigh), and was sufficiently established by 1998 to form her own group, the Carbines. Her role fronting the band allowed Tift to further develop her songwriting talents. She made her recording debut as a featured player and vocalist on Two Dollar Pistols with Tift Merritt, an EP of both country duets and original songs. The disc was released in October of 1999 on Yep Roc Records.
Sugar Hill Records, a bluegrass and roots music label based in North Carolina, was set to sign Merritt in 2000, but because they weren’t also willing to sign the rest of the Carbines, the deal failed to materialize. Persistence and Tift’s talents paid off, however. After she won the Chris Austin Songwriting contest at the 2000 MerleFest Music Festival, Tift secured a deal with Lost Highway, a subsidiary of Universal.
Tift’s major label debut, Bramble Rose, was issued in June of 2002, and received solid reviews from the critics. She was backed on the album by the Carbines, who she also used as her touring band (in addition to a little help on lead guitar from producer Ethan Johns, and on keyboard from Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers). Despite the good publicity that it generated, the album failed to sell in large quantities.
Tift’s second full-length release, Tambourine, was released in August of 2004. Produced by veteran producer George Drakoulias of Black Crowes and Jayhawks fame, Tambourine had a more soulful sound than its rootsy predecessor. The guitars were cranked up, and horns were added to a couple of the tracks for an overall bluesy, R&B flavor. Guests included Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Tench and guitarist Mike Campbell. Tift’s sophomore effort received positive reviews, and was nominated as Country Album of the Year at the 2004 Grammy Awards.