Ask nearly anyone in town what’s the best show they’ve seen at Cat’s Cradle, and they’ve got an answer ready. Maybe it was Hootie & the Blowfish. Or Nirvana. Or Macklemore. For owner Frank Heath, it was Warren Zevon. Everyone can think back to a night they spent in the crowd, swept up in the extraordinary music in our own backyard. Everyone, that is, except me … until recently.
The venerated venue that has hosted acts both national and local opened in 1969 and has moved a few times in its existence. After Cat’s Cradle closed briefly in the summer of 1986, Frank and his partners reopened it a few months later in the space that’s now The Crunkleton. “We really just wanted to keep providing a space for bands to play, as there were very few in the Triangle at that time,” he says. As the need for space grew, it moved to the building next to Lime & Basil and then to its current home in Carrboro.
I can’t think of a better artist to introduce me to the scene at Cat’s Cradle than Tift Merritt. The Raleigh-raised musician briefly attended UNC and herself watched bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers perform at the Cradle. In 2002, she released her debut album, the soulful, alt-country “Bramble Rose,” and this February, Yep Roc Records reissued it on vinyl. That same month, the GRAMMY nominee and her band returned to Carrboro for a one-night-only performance of the album. As the opening band played, I dug through my purse to find just enough quarters for a Carolina Brewery Sky Blue beer (Note to fellow first-timers: It’s cash only!) and took it all in.
“Y’all can’t make me cry this early on,” Tift protested after the crowd full of fans and friends gave her a rousing welcome.
As Tift slipped right back into songs she wrote more than a decade ago, I could see the front row mouthing all the words. The singer, eight months pregnant, told me after she was “overwhelmed to find so much love in the room for [‘Bramble Rose’].” Tift gave a stirring performance, and what a privilege it was to witness it at the venue that’s both cavernous and cozy. “The Cat’s Cradle, my hometown audience, have for years given me the tremendous gift of a willingness to accompany me wherever I’m going as a musician,” Tift said. “It’s like they say, ‘Go on, we’re right behind you, and we’re coming, too.’ It’s such a supportive and singular situation, and it was especially strong that night.”