SM PIER — Opening for a folk singing icon such as Joan Baez may seem like a daunting task, but the soulful melodies of country singer Tift Merritt should have no problem soaring on their own.
Both songstresses will take the stage at 7 p.m. tonight for the Santa Monica Pier’s Twilight Dance Series.
A North Carolina native, Merritt began playing in small clubs during her college years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, mixing country beats with melancholic, alternative sounds to produce something that’s all her own.
The 34-year-old has released four CDs during her singing and songwriting career and her 2004 album “Tambourine” earned her a Grammy nomination for Country Album of the Year.
For Merritt, music is a “family affair” — she’s married to her band’s drummer, Zeke Hutchins, and has been playing with many of the same musicians for nearly 12 years.
“My music life and my regular life are pretty much the same family,” she said, noting that working and touring with an all-male band has introduced her to subjects such as football, in which she usually has very little interest.
Before releasing her 2008 album, “Another Country,” Merritt spent some time away from touring with her band, drawing inspiration on the streets of Paris.
“I was there for about three days and I called home and said, ‘I’m not coming home for a while,’” said Merritt, who was once a student in the City of Lights.
Renting a loft apartment with a piano in central Paris, Merritt continued writing.
“Something in me really plugs in when I’m there,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful city. It’s very art centered, detail centered.”
Now she’s back promoting an acoustic solo album entitled “Buckingham Solo.” Her performance in Santa Monica marks the start of a series of shows throughout July and August that she will perform without her band.
“You put yourself out there in a very stark way when you’re by yourself,” she said.
Though Merritt enjoys performing, it’s in songwriting where her passion truly lies.
“In my secret heart I’d love to be home all the time, being a writer all the time,” she said. “That’s who I wish I was, not who I am.”
Merritt, who records in Los Angeles, is no stranger to California and calls the Troubadour in West Hollywood one of her favorite venues to play. Both she and Hutchins, who will be joining her in Santa Monica during the show, like to surf and hope to catch a few waves while they’re on the West Coast.
For Baez, performing in Santa Monica will be a homecoming. The singer once lived above the carousel on the pier with political activist and friend Colleen Creedon.
Today she is one of two co-chairs for the pier’s centennial planning committee and made it a point to add the concert at the pier as part of her summer tour, where she will perform with percussionist son Gabriel Harris.
“I always wanted to go and give a concert there,” she said in a previous Daily Press interview.
Merritt said it’s a compliment to have been asked to perform on the same night as Baez.
“She’s someone I’ve looked up to forever both politically and musically,” she said.
Though their music styles differ, both women sing with a striking truthfulness — whether it’s Merritt’s words about putting pieces back together in her single “Broken” or the political undertones that permeate much of Baez’ work.
“I write about what I care about. I write about what touches me,” Merritt said. “I write about the things that strike me to tell the truth.”