In his short story Billy the Kid, Steve Earle spun the tale of a fresh-faced kid who arrived in Nashville with a handful of brilliant songs, cut a stone classic album, scored a record deal most musicians would give their eye teeth to get, and married the girl of his dreams, all in a few weeks before cruel fate caught up with him. While one can only hope the powers that be have a more generous final act planned for Tift Merritt, listening to her first solo album (she'd released an album with the Two Dollar Pistols), Bramble Rose, is a reminder that such things could possibly happen in the real world. If Bramble Rose is a bit short of perfect, it leaves no doubt that Merritt is already a talent of the first order. As a singer, she has a simply gorgeous vocal instrument (imagine the passion of Lucinda Williams and the real-world twang of Iris Dement fused with the silky beauty of Emmylou Harris), and her songs are nearly as impressive as her vocals. At 27, Merritt's lyrical perspective speaks of the often-unfortunate twists and turns of fate, but without bitterness or spite, and she can jump from the wistful sway of "Virginia, No One Can Warn You" to the R&B-influenced bite of "Neighborhood" and back to the classic weeper style of the title cut without missing a step or ever sounding less than committed or convincing. Merritt also has the good fortune of having a superb backing band who support her songs with grace and impeccable taste, and producer Ethan Johns gets this music on tape with a sound that's at once intimate and comfortably wide open. It's difficult to imagine that an artist whose previous recording experience amounted to one self-released 45 and a split EP could turn in an album so strong and well-crafted, but it's even harder to imagine that listeners are likely to hear many debut albums nearly as good as Bramble Rose in the final six months of 2002, and by all rights this should be the first offering in a long and successful career for Tift Merritt.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming