Out of the gate, critics praised his work. They lauded the literate, probing yet accessible lyrics wrapped up in singable melodies that were present on his first album, “Josh Ritter.” He hasn’t let them down yet.
As a kid in Idaho, Ritter found the inspiration he needed for his art in the music of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Specifically, on the album they recorded together, “Nashville Skyline.”
“They were going for something that was different. It really intrigued me,” said Ritter. “There was a heart in it that really appealed to me. They weren’t trying to hit the perfect note or even sing close together. They just sounded like it was a lot of fun, and it also sounded like they needed a shave.”
To Ritter, the rough, heartfelt sound of the two bards in need of a shave was as exciting as punk or grunge. It lit a fire under his butt.
After hearing these artists as well as Leonard Cohen and Gillian Welch, the young neuroscience major stopped following in the footsteps of his scientist parents. He followed his heart instead. His parents were nervous about his new course, but supportive.
“It’s not like the typical [career path]. There’s no grad school associated with it. There’s no system of tenure. There’s no benefits and health insurance and all that sort of stuff. You kind of have to carve out a niche for yourself, and so for that reason, I think they were wary as anybody would be. I would be if my kids decided to do that. But at the same time it’s really exciting,” said Ritter.
After college, Ritter headed to Boston. The city’s folk scene has been a proving ground for fellow acoustic strummers like Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman and Dar Williams. The trick was to blaze his own path. But how?
He watched the countless musicians around him. Most would never gain mass appeal and come out on the other side of success like Ritter has done. But still, they had plenty to teach him.
“You can really benefit from watching other people. I’ve had a chance to be with some great bands, some great performers and watch them. See how they manage to make it day to day for six months on the road without going totally nuts, and how they manage to keep a group together and work with all the people you need to work with to make a tour work, or to make a career work,” Ritter said.
Eventually, he needed to spread his wings beyond Boston.
“You can’t play every night of the week and expect to bring a crowd. Working in a place like that, it forces you to work outwards. You know, you can’t support yourself playing music in Boston on your own. You have to go elsewhere,” Ritter said.
He hit the road with a self-recorded, self-released and self-titled debut album in 1999. Reviews were favorable. But it was his second album, 2002’s “Golden Age of Radio” that got critics to go ga-ga.
“[The] best moments on ‘Golden Age of Radio’ are truly splendid, and if the album suggests that Josh Ritter is still learning the ropes, what he knows already is more than many artists will ever figure out. Great stuff,” wrote All Music Guide’s Mark Deming.
Signature Sounds Recordings picked up the album and released it nationally. Touring abroad gave Ritter a hit in Ireland, “Me & Jiggs” where the first tribute band was formed in his honor. At home, however, Ritter has yet to hit it big, and he is still figuring out how to define success.
“When it comes to it, you just have to make those decisions for yourself. You either get up in the morning and write or you don’t,” he says.
Luckily for his fans, he writes.
Sometimes the characters in his songs are novelties that capture his interest in a given moment, sometimes they are the most famous of protagonists facing dire situations.
“Peter said to Paul / ‘All those words that we wrote / Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go’ / But now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun / I gotta girl in the war, man I wonder what it is we done,” he writes in “Girl in the War” from his 2006 album, “The Animal Years.”
Much like a newspaper editor, Ritter trusts that if he’s interested in something, or if something is important to him, it’s probably important to others as well. “Girl in the War” was a very important song for Ritter to write.
“The war was just starting to really gear up in Iraq and I felt that somehow people had found a way to use religion to justify war. They’d just stolen the language,” he said.
So, once again, he took a cue from the conscientious work of Cash and Dylan, just as they followed Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams before them. While he often gets compared to his heros, Ritter recognizes the trouble that this can present.
“Sometimes struggling for originality can really hamstring the work of just writing a song and getting it done and singing it. As time goes on that definitely becomes a thing. You find you live in other people’s shadows, unless you try and do things that are different each time,” he said. “I feel like that’s the contract I have with people who listen to me. They trust that I’m working hard to come up with something new and different.”
Sometimes that something “new and different” is the result of serendipity, or Ritter’s ability to live with something that is less than perfect. This was the case with his song, “Idaho.”
“It was a bit of a mistake, that song. I wrote it just before going in the studio and I remember I was home with my parents, visiting them. It was almost dinner time and I kind of rushed that thing, fairly quickly. I recorded it at the end of a really long day where we’d been struggling,” he said. “All the mics that were turned on were completely different, so we couldn’t really replicate the sound. It was just kind of a haphazard group of mics in a room. There was something about playing it like that that felt really good. It felt really lonesome. It felt like “Rambling Man” or something by Hank Williams.