Bramble Road

By  |  May 4, 2017
Photos courtesy of Tift Merritt Photos courtesy of Tift Merritt

Amps & Raisins


Touring is not for the faint of heart. Without a child, it is an animal exercise in mileage, calories, and sleep, which leaves me plagued with thoughts about what my karma must be that I have landed in a sickly-colored motel in this or that middle of nowhere. Touring with a child is more pleasurable, a true exploration, but frankly, tiring.

My daughter Jean is a beautiful, determined joy machine. She has serious blue eyes, crooked teeth, and laughs freely with the sound of a baby pterodactyl. She loves celery, stir sticks, and travel shampoos. Her best friend is a chow named Louie, so her first word was woof. She was born last April to a divorced, stubborn, forty-one-year-old mother and her new stubborn musician boyfriend, Eric. Jean started touring about the time she starting sitting up on her own. I love everything about her madly.

The focus required for motherhood is a lot like the focus required for performing; but instead of sleeping after I nurse her to bed, I put on a show. Spending time with my child, traveling with my child—making music is the ice cream, the bonus round. Still, touring under any condition remains a great up-ender: the constant motion is a dizzying, addicting thing. When I stop, I find myself given out, and I feel diminished and ungrounded—even when someone tiny is thrilled to gnaw celery beside me.

My most recent tour leg—through the South and southern Midwest, Kansas, Oklahoma to Louisiana, and Georgia—would have once broken my spirit, but I survived intact because of my daughter. We (the touring party: me, Jean, Eric, a nanny) hit some new lows, in particular a night in a town that shall remain nameless where I played to a half-empty bar with a TV on. Everything there smelled like stale beer, and I had to ask that the house music be turned off for sound check. The bar was open and the sound system was built more for bass subs than acoustic guitars; the sound man was annoyed at our pickiness. After the show, he threw on AC/DC rather than give me a chance to play an encore so that the late show headliner could start loading in.

What the fuck, I said into the microphone. I told everyone in the half-empty room that they could have their money back (granted, not a powerful threat). I had never lost my temper openly onstage before. I had never had the house music turned on me either. What the fuck, I said again. I bargained for a last song before the AC/DC returned. While the late show bands loaded in their amps, I sold t-shirts. I lost my voice trying to talk over “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” I made about $70.

Right through the crowd, Eric loaded our gear out: keyboard, stands, guitars, amps, the t-shirts in their broken cardboard box, everything disheveled. In the front seat of a rented SUV, in a big, lumpy unorganized mess, we drank a beer. We laughed. But in my head I said it to myself: I don’t think I can do this anymore. We stayed that night in a rental that felt dark and creepy, with a child crying loudly in the adjacent apartment. But Jean slept through it all, perfect innocence across her chubby face. In the morning light, she found the apartment had a little girl’s room that was painted pink. She cooed at the butterflies and birds on the walls and played on the yellow rocking horse in the corner. She held a tiny stuffed dog with huge eyes in her hands and smiled and said woof. I sat on the carpet and held her. All I could think: I don’t ever want Jean to be lonely. I want her to know love, and I want her to know giving love. Every day. When she is old enough to understand, that is what we will talk about at bedtime each night. Did you have a good day? Who gave you love? Who did you give love to? Did you feel love today? In that dingy, strange child’s room in an apartment that looked like the Russian mafia could be operating an escort service from the living room, I heard it again in my head: I don’t think I can do this anymore. I don’t think I can do this anymore. I gathered her in my arms and took her down to the car.

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Driving that day on the interstate, through the concrete landscape and billboards, the discount egg salad sandwiches, the truck stops, and the FIREWORKS FOR SALE signs, the rivers looked dirty and the lakes were down. The modern roadside South unfurled one exit at a time: BPs, Cabelas, motor home dealers, antique malls, and strip clubs. I’ve taken this route more times than I could ever count. I’ve loved the stray green stretches of Queen Anne’s lace and pine trees, but maybe I’ve been looking for something off those exits that just wasn’t there. I was on a circuit of half-empty rock clubs, and sometimes it felt like the musical equivalent of chewed gum. I didn’t know how to push through anymore. I didn’t know how to make my life grow or change. This isn’t enough, I said to myself.

But who I would be if I let go of a dream that I’d held to so fast? Like the fasteners of a bandage, the ones that gnarl into the fabric and don’t let go. I had gripped my dream like that, maybe tighter. I had never let another possibility into my mind, and the road I’d set my course on was getting narrower, not wider. My map: worn away by good intentions. As desperately as I wanted things to work out, the only clear answer that morning was to let go of the dream I had tried my damnedest to love so well.

In the many times before when I had found myself on a highway facing doubt, I started to plan my next move. My next project. My next push. My next failed comeback. But this time, in this backseat, sitting beside Jean, I just tried to look her in the eye. I don’t think I can do this anymore. It didn’t matter how much of my life, my blood, my time I had poured into my dream—it was not going to have a happy ending. No fourth-quarter pull out. No plot twist. How many times had the fear of losing my lifeline made me run harder, work faster, press on? Maybe it was time to stop. Maybe the thrill of performing was actually pretty cheap. Maybe I wasn’t that good. Maybe I’d be better off. Or maybe, maybe, I would be kind of alright.

Jean fumbled around in her car seat; I adjusted her blanket, picked out the stray raisins, a baby sock. Was life on the road good enough for my daughter? Was it good enough for me? Motherhood had given me the ability to not take the world quite so personally. Failure is just failure. So what. I’m still Jean’s mom. Removing my dream from the equation, the tour is really a comedy of errors which I was, now suddenly, prepared to laugh at. I show cites and landscapes to my little daughter in the same way that I show her yellow, flower, moon. Texas. Oregon. Milwaukee. I-95, I-85, I-5.

That next night after sound check, in a hotel outside Oklahoma City, Jean held a green bean in one hand and a toothbrush in the other. We had driven through Trump country only to get to more Trump country. These first years of her life will mark her, but she will have no memory of them at all. I was trying to figure out from that eighth-floor window how I would explain it all to her: her country, my divorce, why people take anti-depressants, what books to read and why, when she, Jean of much joy, threw her arms around me, then pointed out the window at a passing dog, a small family on a playground. She, Jean of Joy, put her hands together in a motion in sign language meaning more. More please, she said. More. More of everything is what she meant.

I’ve been on the road for about seventeen years now. I was twenty-five when I got a record deal and twenty-seven when my first record came out. I didn’t think of myself as young then. My band and I set out driving around the country, looking for good mom-and-pop places to eat. I was the only person in the band who had a cell phone; we probably stopped to ask club directions from pay phones. I’m not sure we did, but it seems like we did. We all smoked, most of us, in a Ford Econoline that had an orange corduroy armchair as its backseat and a dog named Lucy that rode in the front seat. We had a manager. And a record deal. Life was good.

In the years since, I’ve watched the music economy fall on its ear. I’ve always only wanted to be a career artist, a working artist, not any kind of superstar. But as music has become a free digital trading card, that idea is much harder to sustain. Once I spent every red cent I had financing a record and a tour because I thought if I were brave enough, I would turn a corner. I didn’t. Looking at Twitter, I see that four thousand bands put records out just this morning, and they all have better-attended gigs than I do. Your cousin’s sister just recorded at her house and now she’s on TV, and while I typed this sentence, a nineteen-year-old went viral and has redefined pop. Innumerable windows in all modes of transportation are provided for the stare-and-wonder routine: What the fuck am I doing? Yes, I’m plagued by feelings of failure and insignificance and a lot of my biggest fears have come true, but it really isn’t that bad. I’ve made work I believe in. I’ve kept going. The road is dangerous because the idea that it adds up to something is usually wrong. But what in life couldn’t be described that way?

I guess that is why I’ve pressed on night after night, past the city limits, the Walmarts, and the local eats. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some breaks and some critical acclaim, but no real commercial success. Wherever I’m playing tonight, I’ll arrive unshowered, I’ll do my hair with hand lotion and leftover toothpaste nine minutes before going onstage. I’ll eat a lot of hummus and brown bananas for dinner. Somehow, the music and the crowd and the songs will manage to make tomorrow morning look bright. Will manage to make the miles worthwhile. I’m not sure who I am without the road. Except now, I’m Jean’s mom.

Over the course of this year, I want to invite you to come with us, me and Jean, to lean your head out the window as we roll through the country at seventy-five miles an hour. I’ll be here beside you, getting annoyed with band members who are eating too loudly and who insist on the nuclear-winter AC setting. I’ll be here, wondering about the limitations of a life lived in three-minute pop songs that rendered me here to prose, breastfeeding Jean in a car seat en route, covered in puffed wheat, fighting with a GPS, negotiating the end of one dream to make room for new ones. Maybe together we’ll hit some high notes, hopefully with some frequency. Maybe these will be the last of my touring days. I don’t know. Sometimes there will be tears, but what I hope for us both is that we will be laughing our way right through them. 

 “Amps & Raisins” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Tift Merritt is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter whose six albums of original material include Bramble Rose and, most recently, Stitch of the World. When not on tour, she lives and writes in North Carolina with her young daughter, Jean.