Merritt, Cari Lee
Cari Lee Merritt
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the proliferation of a new kind of roots music performer—the multi-talented collector and historian. These knowledgeable enthusiasts have promoted their musical passions by forming bands and recording for like-minded small roots labels. Often the performers expend large amounts of time for very low wages, just for the pride of keeping their preferred genre alive. Once in a great while, an act of this type will develop a steadfast cult following. Such is the case with California-born Cari Lee Merritt who, along with her band the Saddle-ites, has earned a growing reputation as one of the Northwest's best neo-traditional performers. Her style encompasses the rowdy hillbilly of The Maddox Brothers and Rose and the effervescent rockabilly of Bob & Lucille, with overtones of 1950s R&B. The group's cowboy-era attire has led some to believe that Merritt and company are merely a nostalgia act, but their artistic intentions are remarkably pure and serious.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Boulder, California, Merritt's musical obsessions were first fueled by a collection of her parents' old 45 RPM singles. As she explained in an interview, her disparate interests immediately blossomed. "When I was growing up I listened to everything from the Violent Femmes, Siouxise & The Banshees, all the way over to the very early Ska stuff, which is really what sold me on music itself. From there I started drawing correlations between old Rock Steady and American Doo-Wop and started finding a lot of similarities…. From there I went to rhythm & blues and from there I went into rockabilly, and from there rock 'n' roll, hillbilly, western swing, and that kind of thing. Most people progress forward, I just keep going backwards." Merritt added, "I've never really been interested in pop music from any era, simply because of its palatability."
Started Career Relatively Late
Despite her rampant, ever-changing musical interests, Merritt didn't express her vocal gifts until after she turned 26. The catalyst was her husband, Steve Merritt. Now the lead guitarist for the Saddle-ites, he originally played with the punk bands Complete Disorder and Third Rail before gearing into rockabilly with the Stillmen.
"Right around the time he got involved in rockabilly and the Stillmen was when he decided that he wanted to start his own record label," Merritt recalled. "He wanted to specialize in 45s. First, he had actually asked the Stillmen if they wanted to release something on the Star Tone label and they said, 'Yeah, and do you want to join the band?' That's when he started teaching me to play the guitar."
"Singing was very casual," Merritt explained. "It wasn't anything that took a major focus. But when I learned how to play guitar, that's when I started writing songs and becoming really interested. That's when Steve said, 'You know, you've got two really good songs here. I think we ought to put 'em on a record.' It was just a matter of, 'Hey, you know what? We've got the recording date and musicians lined up—let's do it.'"
Equally casual was Merritt's 1999 on-stage debut and the formation of her band, which included Mark Hanses on double bass, Billy Wilson on steel guitar and piano, Rick Quisol on drums, and Steve Merritt on lead guitar. She commented, "As a spectator, I went to a nightclub where they were having a jam session, and the guys asked me up to sing. I sang a song and walked back to my seat and had a promoter saying, 'So, when can you get up three sets?' So, that's how that happened and it happened rather quickly—within a matter of a couple of weeks it went from jam session to recording studio."
Recorded for Spanish Company
Although Merritt doesn't care for her Star Tone single today, it got her on a bill at England's Hemsby festival, singing behind rockabilly legend Glen Glenn—only her second gig—and it attracted the attention of El Toro Records in Spain. "The label owner, Carlos, heard the 45—poor guy—and he wrote me an e-mail saying, 'Hey, would you be interested in … doing an album for El Toro?'"
Their first project, the Steve Merritt-produced Red Barn Baby, was pure hillbilly bop of the Rose Maddox and Charline Arthur school. From the outset, both Merritts were pleased with the amount of creative freedom El Toro's label offered them. "I think that's one of the best things about being involved with an independent label," reported Cari Lee. "The judgment calls were left totally up to us, the artists…. I guess some labels, facing marketability issues, will go in and change things—doctor things up, and end up screwing things up because they're more interested in making money than they are in delivering music that the artist wants to represent…. But, independent labels have a much more personal interest in the music."
Recorded mostly live in the studio, Red Barn Baby featured obscure western swing and rockabilly covers mixed in with Merritt's own original tunes. Well received by neo-traditional roots audiences for its musical verve and simple, swinging execution, the disc cemented the band's reputation as an old-school style western combo. Subsequently, they decided to look the part as well.
"One of the things that was important to the entire band was—if we're going to represent this sound, we should represent that type of stage show as well," explained Merritt. "So, the stage wear is hopefully within the same line of clothing that a hillbilly or western swing band would wear." When asked where she gets her colorful cowgirl stage duds, the singer-songwriter stressed the need for personal economy. "Oh, I make them…. I can't afford to buy the stuff…. One of the main criteria of my stage wear is that it has to hold up and it has to be machine washable because there's no way I can afford to take things to the dry cleaners every other day."
Still Growing Artistically
Merritt, normally a sunny blonde, dyed her hair red to portray the fiery Rose Maddox for a well-received local theater production titled The Maddox Brothers & Rose, which ran for two weeks in early 2003. The success of the play bolstered her confidence enough to expand her band's sonic vistas for their second El Toro album, The Road Less Traveled.
For the Record …
Born Cari Lee Donovan on August 3, 1970, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Dan (a contractor) and Jean (an administrator) Donovan; married Steven Merritt, 1994; children: Evangeline.
Began playing guitar and writing songs, 1997; turned professional and sang live at local venues, 1999; recorded first single on husband's Star Tone label, 2000; sang on stage with rockabilly veteran Glen Glenn at Hemsby Rock 'n' Roll Show, 200; signed with Spanish El Toro label and recorded first album Red Barn Baby, 2001; played Rose Maddox in local stage production, 2003; worked with roots music producer Billy Horton to record second El Toro album, The Road Less Traveled, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—El Toro Records, P.O. Box 220, Pineda, 08397, Barcelona, Spain, website: http://www.eltororecords.com, e-mail: [email protected], phone: 0034-937-670-690. Booking—Trish Wagner, Chickrock Entertainment, e-mail: [email protected], phone: 512-627-2397. Office—P.O. Box 795, Alameda, CA 94501, e-mail: [email protected], phone: (510)-387-0928. Website—Cari Lee & the Saddle-ites Official Website: http://www.saddle-ites.com.
Traditional roots music maestro/producer Billy Horton encouraged the band to multi-track, experiment rhythmically, and make each song distinct within the framework of the Saddle-ites hillbilly bop style. "He knows everything there is to know about the equipment and technology and how to get the kind of sound that we wanted for each particular song," praised Merritt.
Because it was a departure from her hillbilly-oriented debut, Merritt worried that The Road Less Traveled would offend country's staunch traditionalists. However, the stylistic risks resulted in an enjoyable CD, containing several strong self-penned songs, and clips of a TV performance for those who might not get to see her live. The former teacher is both a mother and a student working toward a doctoral degree in psychology. And although she writes constantly, attends music theory classes, and is planning an album of rockin' R&B with Horton producing, she still considers music a "leisure time activity."
How do they eat, pay the bills, and raise their child? Well, husband Steve works as a buyer for a networking company. "We've talked about doing this full time too," Cari Lee explained. "I think we look at our music more as a life's passion rather than a job—and we don't ever want to look at it as a job. Because that's something that you have to do—not something you really want to do."
Merritt's part-time approach to music seems to garner as much positive attention as constant touring does for other acts. She stated with characteristic humor, "It also gives you the capability to eat more than just Top Ramen."
"Church Bell Boogie," Star Tone, 2000.
(With various artists) Ritual Rockabillies, El Toro, 2001.
"As Long As I'm Movin'," Part Records, 2003.
Red Barn Baby, El Toro, 2003.
The Road Less Traveled, El Toro, 2003.
Blue Suede News, #66, Spring 2004.
Country Standard Time, March 2004.
Cari Lee & The Saddle-ites Official Website, http://www.saddle-ites.com (June 4, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from interviews with Cari Lee Merritt, from which all quotations were drawn.
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