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You'll be forgiven, based on the group's moniker, for mistaking Tres Chicas for a Southwestern/Latina trio.

The name was a rather impromptu decision, much like the band's formation, when three stalwarts of the North Carolina alt-country scene joined together for some gigs at a club called the Lakeside Lounge in Raleigh. Whiskeytown vocalist and violinist Caitlin Cary, Hazeldine leader Tonya Lamm and Let's Active veteran Lynn Blakey wanted to play some shows together, and the lounge's owner made up the Tres Chicas name so he could include them in a newspaper ad. The other name he thought of - PWS, or Purty Women Singin' - didn't quite have the same ring.

While Tres Chicas originally was going to be a purely part-time gig between the members' solo careers and other bands, it instead evolved into a real band, releasing a brilliant album in 2004, "Sweetwater," full of stunning harmonies and solid country-rock. And now Tres Chicas is touring the West for the first time, opening for fellow North Carolina artist and Grammy nominee Tift Merritt, including a stop in Salt Lake City Tuesday.

"Tift has been a friend of mine forever," Cary explained in a recent interview. "We all - Tift, me and Tonya - all worked for the same transcription company. Tift was like the new star-child on the scene. Now we're riding her Grammy-nominated coattails."

Tres Chicas features three savvy veterans of the touring game, especially in relation to the relative newcomer Merritt. With Whiskeytown, where Cary was partnered with alt-country poster boy Ryan Adams, Cary toured the country several times over before the band imploded.

Cary now jokingly refers to the Whiskeytown years as "the bad old days," and she since has released a couple of outstanding solo albums before turning her focus to Tres Chicas. With this group, she said, touring is pure pleasure, especially compared to the years of touring with a bunch of men instead of her sisters in song.

"Touring with the girls, we're doing each other's nails, giving each other back rubs," Cary said, laughing. "Seriously!"

One downside to the current tour, though, is that Lamm was not able to make the trip because she has a 3-year-old daughter at home.

"We tried to get Dolly Parton to give us a bus so we could take her on tour, but we haven't heard back yet," Cary said. "The 3-year-old-in-a-van tour, that's not happening."

Instead, multi-instrumental- ist Sara Bell will take Lamm's spot, joining a bassist and drummer in providing the Chicas with the soothing country sounds filling "Sweetwater." The album holds original songs from all three members, as well as covers of Lucinda Williams, Loretta Lynn and George Jones. Cary said the live shows will also include a few more covers and songs from the members' solo work.

"We're a little more rock [live] than on the record," Cary said. "Some of the songs are still f---ing sad as hell, but there's not much you can do about that."

Even when the lyrical content is on the bummed-out side, though, the sound of three excellent singers and instrumentalists weaving their skills is nothing but joyful. The "Sweetwater" album captured the ear of critics and country fans last year, and it also enamored its creators. While the Chicas originally thought it would be years before they recorded together again, they now are going to hit the studio this spring to record a second album.

"We always thought of Tres Chicas as a side project, but we've really enjoyed it so much," Cary said. "In Whiskeytown, I was just sort of caught up, like, 'What's going on?' Now I'm much more self-directed. I know what I want to sound like. I know what I'm best at. We're all a little older and we know what we want."

Carolina sounds, out West

Tres Chicas and Tift Merritt play Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Liquid Joe's, 1249 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets are $10, available at 24Tix.com, Smith's Tix outlets

and the door.

Merritt also will appear for an in-store performance and CD signing Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Borders in Crossroads Mall downtown.

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