Tift Merritt drags her prey high into the branches of a tree to protect it from scavengers. Credit: Courtesy High Road Touring

“Trouble Over Me,” the first track on Tift Merritt‘s solo debut, 2002’s Bramble Rose, is very nearly a perfect country song. It’s so good that it took me months to listen to the rest of the album—when I first heard it a few years ago, I just kept on replaying “Trouble Over Me” over and over. Born in Houston and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Merritt earns frequent comparisons to Emmylou Harris with her graceful voice and rootsy rhythm guitar. The alt-country singer-songwriter has made nine solo albums full of original material so far, but the soulful, well-crafted ballads of Bramble Rose make it my favorite.

Bramble Rose wasn’t Merritt’s first rodeo. That distinction belongs to 1999’s The Two Dollar Pistols With Tift Merritt, which she recorded while she was still lead singer of Raleigh band the Carbines. The album pairs her with the Two Dollar Pistols, a deft Chapel Hill honky-tonk group whose front man, John Howie Jr., has a baritone voice as honeyed as Merritt’s alternately brash and lilting soprano. Merritt’s careful attention to the nuances of harmony and Howie’s forceful delivery make the Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton song “Just Someone I Used to Know” sound like their own.

But Merritt really shines on her own material, and “Trouble Over Me” is a heartbreaking example of her storytelling talent. Her songs have been covered by bigger names: the title track of Bramble Rose, for instance, got the Don Henley treatment (with help from Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert) on the 2015 album Cass County. But “Trouble Over Me” wouldn’t have the same effect without Merritt’s own ethereal voice at the wheel. “Tell me a secret before you meant to / Worry what I’ll do, trouble over me,” she sings, and it sounds like a scenario many of us act out in our heads when we might want some company but don’t want to demand it. She doesn’t want the usual fairy tale (“You’re not my boyfriend / I don’t want a boyfriend”), but she’s asking for understanding despite her conflicting feelings. Maybe what she’s wishing for is enough: “Let me think that you might go to a little trouble over me.”  v

The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at thelistener@chicagoreader.com.