The Historical Lyricism of Josh Ritter

By Kevin Vowles and Tom Schabarum

Josh Ritter has taken transparency to a new level in the business of making music. He’s writing it all down for others to take heed and learn the triumphs and pitfalls of making a career as a singer or a band.

It’s taken him years to get to where he is now and his blog is a good place to start if you’re hungry for a music career, or just want to see how Mr. Ritter does what he does and still keep his winsome smile bright onstage every single night – even when you know his heart must be bursting. What comes through, however, is that Mr. Ritter is a singer/songwriter and performer of rare intensity.

Naturally, you’d want to start an article about a singer at the beginning, when they first heard a piece of music that inspired them to want to do that thing that rips them open night after night in front of countless folks intent on being moved and shaken. But it’s probably better to start at the now with Josh Ritter – the now that sees him crisscrossing the country and Europe with his band, and putting a new novel out called Bright’s Passage that is another expression of who he is, and the dialogue he’s having with himself and his fans, be it musical or literary or, as many have noted, a combination of both. Words must tumble out of him so fast some times, it’s most likely hard for even him to get it all down – to get at the core of the image he’s trying to create against a musical metaphor. The first chapter of Bright’s Passage is vintage Josh. Words are jangled together beautifully, compelling the reader forward. It must have been hard for him to slow down and explode a story out in pages rather than verses or it might have been just the thing that came more naturally to him, paring the poetics of character and detail, then creating a whole world for them to exist in outside of rhyme and meter.

Pain and suffering are at the heart of any creative force, but when you watch him, it doesn’t seem as if he’s suffered at all. The internal struggle is there in his lyrics, but when you see him sing, you’re hard pressed to figure out if he’s ever had a hard day in his life until you realize that here’s a man who is truly in love with the work he does. His audience is left standing there, and it’s probably why he’s gaining such a huge following, saying to themselves, “Damn, whatever he’s on, I want some of that.”

Josh Ritter started making music at a young age, and became more serious about the process after having left home, while at University. With a collection of songs under his belt he took it to the studio himself, where it was produced. Josh then went on to market, distribute and promote his music. His success grew organically from the ground up, as he sang and toured the songs he painstakingly perfected in his first self-titled album in 1999. With brilliant poetry shining through, fans were struck by verses such as “Like leaves and kings, all things must fall, No diamond ring’s gonna cut through it all,” referring to lost love. Fans from as far afield as Scotland and Ireland, as well as aficionados of Americana folk music, were entranced and hooked by Josh’s sincerity, originality, poetry and fresh feel. It could easily and safely also be said that fans were drawn to a brilliant artist expressing his enthusiasm for life both with words and remarkably humbling stage presence. Mr. Ritter’s organic emergence into the world of folk music proved a natural to him, as natural as the study of neuroscience was to his parents.

Narrative storytelling is at the heart of his music. In fact, while studying neuroscience at Oberlin College, he changed his major in school to “American History Through Narrative Folk Music.” And his interest in poetry is evident in his inclusion of the poet Mark Strand in performance at a show in New York, whose work is distinctly American and melancholic. His taste in literature leans toward the dark and sometimes macabre with the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Dennis Lahane and even Stephen King. He even mentions the politically profane, Christopher Hitchens. All of these people are distinctly literary and yet, for So Runs the World Away – a title he borrowed from a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he states, “this album felt like a play… and Hamlet is much like all of us in a lot of ways, very mercurial, confused…”, which he acknowledges as a state he was in after he was experiencing his first bout of writer’s block. A breakthrough occurred one night in his bathroom and a key song from the album, “The Curse,” that mixes longing, love, Egyptology, anger and loneliness together in a ballad stretching over eons was the result.

Ray Bradbury once said in a lecture that influences are like popcorn that you feed into your mind and, after awhile, they heat up until the kernels begin popping and bouncing against each other. You can imagine after many years of writing, touring and performing that Mr. Ritter needed a break, whether he knew it or not, so that all of his influences could coalesce to create something new that was meaningful to him and was at the heart of his art.

If 21st century technology has evolved faster than any other in human history, creativity is making similar leaps and bounds as singers push the boundaries of poetic originality and quality. Josh’s creative roots and drive; his ability to invent, take risks, break rules, subdue self-despair and doubt, have fun, make mistakes, grow, and above all else, explore, are all fundamentals of creativity. It seems to be an art form Josh has no trouble mastering, composing lyrics which stick to the human psyche. You might be walking down the road and find yourself humming classical songs of protest such as Girl in the War, wondering how the world got to this place…of war, chaos and greed. It’s not a world meant for people to live in the state of taking from one and another, sings Ritter, even though he makes a point of not using his creativity to preach but only question.

Josh Ritter has been compared to the likes of Bob Dylan by many people, as much for his significance to music as for his sound. He’s been adopted by the anti-war movement as an unofficial spokesperson, despite the fact that Josh has publicly stated he does not wish to be seen as such an outspoken critic. Perhaps finding the musician who calls a spade a spade a little too preachy, Josh understandably clearly wishes to take on the role of an artist who questions through his art form. With songs like Thin Blue Flame, which asks why people fight in the name of God, or Girl in the War, which causes us to put ourselves in the shoes no one wants to be in, Josh’s questioning takes us deep into the abyss of honesty that no one can avoid. Would anyone want their daughter dodging bullets? Would anyone want bombs raining down from the sky or nuclear material in the water? By way of Josh’s poetic lyrics, he proves that simply asking the question can be as effective as giving the answer.

But how do you create a show that takes people on a journey, or elevate an album’s worth of material into a transcendent night? Mr. Ritter moves easily between ballads and foot-stompers, sometimes stringing together a set of three all out assaults with songs from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and then asking the audience to join him in a call and response to such a beautiful song as Wait for Love that he sings off mike at the edge of the stage. With a sense of drama, he’s crafted his shows over the past few years into dynamic experiences that have seen his following grow exponentially. Much like, as earlier stated, he’s created a play in which his songs play parts that make up the whole. Recently, at a larger venue in Seattle, he had people of all ages transfixed by the quiet of Another New World, which stretched past the 8-minute mark and then launched into an updated version of Harrisburg that contained bits of Chris Isaak over another 9 minutes. It’s daring in a live show, it’s daring on record, but Mr. Ritter pulls it off easily with his newly named troupe, The Royal City Band, that has been playing together for many years now. He’s never afraid of trying new things and continues to refine a live show that rivals the best.

Josh Ritter launched the Valentine’s Day Brawl tour in early 2011, with fantastic shows in Philly, Boston, New York and Washington. Candlelit stages, slow dances, roses, and romantic meanderings highlighted touching and energetic performances. The energy has carried west with great momentum, as Josh urged audiences in Seattle and Portland to turn to the person next to them, be bold and fall into a slow dance, or perhaps even make a bigger leap…

As people end significant relationships, many fall into a hole of despair, or exploration of self, giving up on love, while some are more convinced than ever that love exists. In the wake of his break-up with fellow musician Dawn Landes, Mr. Ritter certainly appears to be in the latter category. The grin is as big as ever as he enters the stage, and his enthusiasm for music and life clearly hasn’t waned in the slightest. Was the Valentine’s Day Brawl and subsequent tour his way of telling the world that he’s still got faith in love? Maybe. Whatever the case may be, the 2011 Tour of So Runs the World Away proved to be filled with unbridled enthusiasm and the quality fans have grown consistently accustomed to. Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band continue to push the boundaries of creativity with each passing album and indeed performance. The intensity is consistent, ever present and unwavering. What does the future hold for this bright and lively troop of musicians? Mr. Ritter has alluded that he hopes to be making music for another 30 years if not longer. With the release of Bright’s Passage, we are clearly entering a new era in which fans will have an even greater insight into this musical prodigy, bringing the realization that the future has no limits or ceiling.

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One thought on “The Historical Lyricism of Josh Ritter

  1. I love this post. These are things I would love to say about Josh Ritter. A beautiful tribute to a beautiful person.

    He is my staple music, and he is my hero. I have one or two inferior blog posts about him on my newish blog.

    I met him, and he is as lovely a guy as you would think. What an inspiration… thank you.

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