In the summer of 1998, I can’t remember exactly when, I went out and bought a copy of Neil Young’s Comes a Time. The album’s words have stayed with me for a long time; it remains one of my favorite Young albums, and I still don’t know what to call it: county, folk, or just great music that is timeless. I don’t mind that I can’t categorize it, because I’ll have it forever, and that’s all that matters to me.
The next year, Young went on a rare solo acoustic tour that brought him to many cities across the U.S., with St. Louis, where I was attending college and still live, being one of his stops. It remains the best concert I’ve ever witnessed, and there’s little chance that will ever change. But there was one song he didn’t play off Comes a Time, a tune called “Goin’ Back,” which leads off the album. It includes a lyric that I’ve always loved and wondered about: “I feel like goin’ back/ back where there’s nowhere to stay.”
Convinced that I had to hear that song – heck, that line – live, my cousins and I drove up to Detroit to catch him again, and I got lucky. Third song into the first set, Neil nailed it, and I was speechless. But, for the last several years, I haven’t thought much about “Goin’ Back,” and having “nowhere to stay.”
That is, until Tift Merritt’s Another Country came along.
Precisely, Merritt’s “Keep You Happy” is the one that gets me. It’s a song about distance – the kind that suffocates relationships, desires, and denies anything that resembles consistency. And I think it sums up what kind of songwriter she is.
You see, Merritt’s a fighter. In May 2005, fresh off an exhausting tour that found her sometimes playing empty clubs and crying in private, she decided it was time for a change. Paris turned out to be the answer, a city where she unexpectedly wrote the songs for Another Country.
“It was just really unexpected, it was at a moment when I was not really thinking about writing an album,” Merritt told me over the phone. “I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. And I rented this apartment in Paris with a piano just to kind of spend some time with the piano and get to know myself again, in a way, because I had been on tour for so long. It was just such a nice surprise that this happened. And my job was to come back to the States, and take care of the songs, just let them go where they needed to go.”
But when Merritt came back home, her label, Lost Highway didn’t share her same vision and excitement. They eventually dropped her.
“The sky is turning and longing for something far away,” Merritt sings in “Keep You Happy.” I believe it’s the best song she’s ever written; it tells of a woman with a realistic view of the world, becoming inspired in a foreign country – in a room with a piano, only to find disappointment lurking around the corner, in a place where she thought was her real home. Happiness is transient, not securely guaranteed, she finds:
Day breaks of tenderness,
A feeling has me and tells me it will never stay.
About the song, Merritt tells me: “I tend to write where I’m coming from. I don’t want to write of anger, or out of selfishness. It’s really important to write for the right reasons, to tell the truth. I think hope is…you can’t help but be in there.”
I like to think that hope, for Merritt, came at a time when she had to go back, remember the days before Lost Highway, and also think about Paris, the place where she found her unexpected gifts.
For Tift Merritt, hope was a free place with nowhere to stay. I thank her for not giving up and having the courage to find it.
Tift Merritt Forum:
She said it: