Sam and Catherine Merrick met in the early '80s at Boise High School. At the time, Catherine Crooks was singing in a punk band called The B-Sides (her bandmates included a young Curtis Stigers). Sam hadn't played guitar anywhere other than his bedroom.
"I'm still listening to Hendrix and Yes," Sam remembered, "and people like her are walking through the halls and I'm like, 'What the hell? She's so cool.'"
"Yeah, but that look, to me, was like, 'She's so weird,'" Catherine said.
In spite of the misinterpretation, a relationship began that would lead to marriage and music, which has most recently culminated in The Devil Loves You, the second album by the Merricks' band, a.k.a. Belle. (Full disclosure: The author of this article wrote the liner notes for the album--unpaid--and works with Catherine at The Record Exchange). The band--which combines folk-country melodies with raw, Neil Young-esque guitar and swinging, jazzy rhythms--celebrated the release of Devil during a double CD release show Feb. 22 with local roots group The Country Club, which released An Idaho Dozen. The show, hosted by Bill Coffey, featured performances by a.k.a. Belle, The Country Club, Stigers, Hillfolk Noir's Ali Ward and burlesque troupe The Red Light Variety Show.
"Catherine Merrick--she'll always be Cathe to me--has been one of my favorite singers since we met back in high school in the early '80s. ... What a voice," Stigers wrote in an email. "I'm a big fan of her co-conspirator and hubby, Sam Merrick, as well. Sam's one of the most inventive and original guitarists around, and he's a ton of fun to watch onstage as well."
Though Sam and Catherine would eventually connect both romantically and musically, it didn't happen right away.
Around 1985, Sam and a friend were living in Los Angeles, and Catherine decided to join them. The relationship was strictly platonic, though Catherine remembered trying to take Sam on a date to see Neil Young. Sam didn't realize it was a date, but he did note that "it was so much more fun living with Catherine. ... Our personalities just go together really well."
In 1987, a love of bands like The Smiths and The Fall drew Catherine to Manchester, England, where she performed as Belle of Les Bois. Sam stayed in L.A., playing with The Leaving Trains and then with The Nymphs, which signed to Geffen Records in 1989.
"If they weren't trying to make us into Dokken or Guns N' Roses so much, we might've been able to do it," Sam said of The Nymphs. Instead, the band's debut album wasn't released until 1991 and The Nymphs broke up the next year. Eventually, Sam returned to Boise and went back to school.
Meanwhile, Catherine gave birth to a son, Gus, and watched drug abuse and violence seep into the Manchester scene. She recalled people holding street raves outside her council estate.
"They'd be screaming and fighting [outside]. We're looking out of Gus' bedroom window and there's a knife fight going on," Catherine said.
Through their various travels and travails, Sam and Catherine kept in touch. And when Catherine moved back to Boise with her son in 2008, Sam realized that their separate paths had been leading to the same destination.
"As soon as I saw her [in February of 2008], I was really surprised. It was this whole rush of, like, 'My God--you are one of the most important people in my life. Maybe the most important,'" Sam said.
They formed a.k.a. Belle soon after and were married the following year. While the songs on a.k.a. Belle's 2012 debut album, Disappearing Night, tell the story of Catherine falling in love and coming home, songs on Devil like "H.G. Wells is Alive and Well" draw inspiration from hardships the Merricks endured beforehand. But they don't do it alone. The couple credits bassist Chris Galli and drummer Louis McFarland with making the music swing both on Devil and at a.k.a. Belle's live performances.
"They have so much to do with it [and] it's not recognized," Sam said. "If your foot's tapping, there's a reason it is, but no one says, 'Wow, it's those two guys in the back.'"
The band plays Treefort Music Fest in March and after that, the Merricks hope to tour Seattle, Portland and England. They'd also like to record another album as soon as possible.
"We can't guarantee that [the four of us] will be together, and I'd be so bummed out if we couldn't get another record out," Sam said. "Hopefully, it's five more records, but if this is just a one-record thing, it would be really unfortunate."