Two albums that have shown up via Nashville—a kickass debut that muses and sparkles, and a wildly sophisticated follow-up that doesn’t choke on its own maturity—indicate that young Southern singer-songwriters needn’t be captive to anyone’s conventions. Both Tift Merritt’s Bramble Rose and Allison Moorer’s Miss Fortune demonstrate that artists can do what they want to do, without rehashing mainstream country or joining the alt-country cabal addicted to shouting down Music Row conservatism. Well-conceived and excellently produced by Ethan Johns and R.S. Field respectively, both records are refreshing because neither seems weighed down by commercial strategy. Merritt and Moorer, while never abandoning common sense, just go for it. If this is part of the current Nashville vogue for the fondly remembered freedom of the 1970s, then Merritt and Moorer have wrested something better from it than some ponderous Eagles vibe or aquamarine Fleetwood Mac bounce.
Merritt, 27, a Texas-raised North Carolinian who pals around with Ryan Adams, opens spectacularly. In “Trouble Over Me,” a young woman longs for love without the pain. She starts by telling a guy, “You’re not my boyfriend,” given how, as she helplessly recalls, “Love goes for quite a price.” She doesn’t want him “for mine,” she says—but she immediately wonders, “Don’t we get along fine?” Merritt has a liquid soprano with both mall expansiveness and back-porch intimacy; it is confidently rich and burnished-sounding in the middle, and Merritt remains wisely careful about its upper registers, which can yield a relative scratchiness incompatible with the goals of her streaming music. On “Trouble Over Me,” at any rate, she meshes her character’s mixed feelings with her own smart vocal effortlessness, breathing a melody within an arrangement that considers everything closely, yet at moments explodes. “Don’t treat me bad,” she stops just short of blurting at the chorus, “That’s not what I’m asking,” and Johns’s electric guitars start to flicker and fire. Skipping bluster or grunge, Merritt accesses that primal underlying thing that so much rock confuses with mere style.
Elsewhere on Bramble Rose, Merritt continues to sound like a singer-songwriter suspicious of the job. Although she’s at home with quiet plaints like “Supposed to Make You Happy” and “Are You Still in Love With Me,” creating contemporary retro-chic Appalachian effects sure to get her manner compared to the naked emotional focus of Emmylou Harris, Merritt’s best work is in fact a little louder. In “Neighborhood,” a brilliant song about the limitations of speed and surface, Merritt and Johns ricochet like new Southern geniuses; they don’t hesitate to guitar it up, unleashing several clicky little metallic accent parts, but everything stays in correct dimension, miles away from some ridiculous neo-Carolina homage to the dBs or something. Hearing Merritt declare, “Baby, you can’t run round/With just anybody in the neighborhood,” listening to her see through the deceptive value of “strangers,” you’ve got this old-school sentiment driving crack country rock at its most modern edges.
Allison Moorer, 30, from Alabama, is the most gifted and resourceful pure singer to emerge via Nashville since Trisha Yearwood. Her work, particularly comfortable in often mind-bogglingly expressive middle and lower registers, proves the Dwight Yoakam doctrine, which states that regional Americana styles in the hands of the right artists have no ceilings on how far they can go. Miss Fortune, even more than Bramble Rose, finds a singer-songwriter proceeding in other ways, given how Moorer wrote all the songs, most with Doyle Primm, her husband. Although Moorer tells detailed stories about local characters, as in “Ruby Jewel Was Here,” and dives into the confessional—as in “Dying Breed,” the Kurt Weill-like piece about family tragedies that ends the album on a show of unfettered dramatic strength—she mostly presents herself as a singer. The record is a female country album for people who dislike female country albums. It’s not too smooth, too shrill, or too Stepford.
But Moorer and Field hardly neglect what makes a Yearwood or Cline or Wynona track happen; unlike Kelly Willis, say, Moorer doesn’t sing as though the listener somehow lives in her own head with her. Time and again, she takes strong positions on lyric content, tonality, and flow—in luscious and arresting ways. This is of course true where Moorer-Primm and Fields have created showcases for the voice. In “Tumbling Down,” a blue-ribbon pop-blues portrait of romantic decay, Moorer does that ultra-rare thing at which Yearwood has always excelled: She builds into her performance an interpretation of what’s going on without allowing her view of the material to overtake the show. This resembles classical objectivity, yet in fact it’s pop-dramatic, as Moorer, whose performance here could scarcely be better anchored or contoured, imparts a mood of ongoing continuity to a narrative about emotional demise. On “Steal the Sun,” another blues idea that Moorer and Fields re-imagine into Americana at its slightly continental grandest, she does hopefulness with a spellbinding overlay of unexpected sorrow. And when they travel somewhere stylistically South of this kind of symphonic largesse, as on the heartbreaking “Cold in California,” everything—all the vocal and interpretive richness, all the arrangement interest—remains, just pulled somewhat back. This is a lot of stuff going on. Via Nashville.
Tift Merritt plays Maxwell’s October 17 and the Mercury Lounge October 18.