Slow climb

Mindy Smith, Tift Merritt are alt-country's latest darlings (but don't call them newcomers)

Mindy Smith and Tift Merritt laugh when they hear the term "overnight success" applied to their respective careers.

Both newly lauded alt-country singer/songwriters struggled for years prior to their current wave of popularity.

When Smith played Eddie's Attic a year ago, "there were like 10 people there," she recalls by phone from a recent tour stop in Seattle.

Of course, that was before her album, One Moment More, was released and started receiving heaps of acclaim. I>Rolling StoneP> called it "marvelous," and Entertainment Weekly said she was "a striking new voice." One of Smith's songs was used on "Six Feet Under," and she performed on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."

Because of the increased exposure, there should be a much bigger crowd for her upcoming Atlanta date. But Smith remains cautious. "I don't even know how much my following there has changed, or if it has," she says. "Atlanta's full of really good music and really good shows keep coming through there. So ya never know. It's like Nashville like that."

She should know. Smith spent her formative years in Long Island, but after her mother's death, she relocated to Knoxville and then headed to Music City to pursue her muse. "Six years ago, Nashville was totally different than it is now," she recalls. "It was in its prime, as far as meeting songwriters and playing a lot." But she soon tired of playing countless, often-thankless songwriter showcases. She wasn't getting signed, and after a while, she says, "I didn't feel like I was learning anything from them."

She started hanging out in the city's burgeoning alternative scene, making music that melded folk and country influences. She felt fulfilled creatively, but life wasn't easy. "A lot of poverty," she says describing those days. "It took me five years to get going."

Those hard times influenced the tone of her debut, which is a stark snapshot of the singer's inner struggles. The songs are so nakedly confessional that they sometimes unnerve the singer herself. "Part of me wishes I hadn't exposed myself as much as I did," she says. "But I did, and I think people are attracted to the honesty more than anything. I think people are interested in the fact that there's a level of honesty they aren't used to."

She seems to be right. Because of the album's success, Smith is now on a high profile, 30-city headlining tour, and her music is reaching an audience wider than she ever imagined. "[The album] was made with the intention to introduce myself," she says, "without the expectation that it would do as well as it has."

Not only is the album moving a lot of copies, Smith is being likened to multimillion-selling critics' darling Norah Jones. "I think people just say that because [my album is] something different," Smith says. "When [Norah] came out, nobody expected her to rule the world, and I don't have that problem. My record isn't platinum by any means, but it's doing all right."

Also doing all right is Smith's opening act, Tift Merritt. She's receiving a lot of praise after the August release of Tambourine, a big-budget follow-up to her 2002 debut, Bramble Rose. It's a festive celebration of Merritt's myriad of influences. "Country, soul, rock 'n' roll, blues and gospel are all fingers of the same hand," she explains.

The album — produced by George Drakoulias (Tom Petty, the Jayhawks), and dotted with fine guest performances by Maria McKee, and Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers — has earned multiple raves. Esquire wrote, "If you're picturing Dusty Springfield front Creedence Clearwater Revival, you're right." The album's sound reflects what Merritt has been doing for years on the road. "Anyone who has been a part of seeing us live knows where this record is coming from," she says. "The live shows have always had a lot of energy, and a lot of joy and abandon."

Like tourmate Smith, Merritt is also no stranger to the concert stages of Atlanta.

With the Two Dollar Pistols and the Carbines, she's endured the trek to Georgia from her home base of North Carolina more times than she can remember. "Oh, yeah, we'd come to town in my big brown 1987 Ford Econoline van, which I just sold only two or three months ago," she recalls. "We booked ourselves and we saved up gas money and we drove to Atlanta and then we drove back in the middle of the night. There was never a question that there was a definite passion about what we were doing. And we were willing to do whatever we had to do, just to go and play the shows."

These memories keep Merritt grounded as all of the critical acclaim pours in. "Being a musician, you have certain times in the spotlight, but the rest of the time, it's just playing music," Merritt says. "There's plenty of work to be done, just to be able to play music."