The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Much of our shared cultural histories rely on myth making. So, too, does the music of Josh Ritter.
Josh Ritter is an admired songwriter and musician known for his lyrical storytelling and Americana folk style.
Ritter was born in 1976 in Moscow, ID. He recorded his self-titled first album while a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, graduating in 1999 with the independent major “American History Through Narrative Folk Music.” The song “Me & Jiggs” from his sophomore record Golden Age of Radio (2001) was a minor hit in Ireland; Ritter’s third album Hello Starling (2003) peaked at number 2 in that country’s album charts. Author Stephen King rated his fourth LP The Animal Years the best album of 2006 in an article for Entertainment Weekly. Two of Ritter’s records, So Runs the World Away (2010) and Sermon on the Rocks (2015) reached number 1 on the Billboard folk charts.
Ritter regularly tours with his Royal City Band, named after a song on The Animal Years. He released his tenth album, Fever Breaks, in 2019. He published a novel, Bright’s Passage, in 2011.
Josh Ritter tells stories of the epic, the strange, the mundane. …Of a love affair between a mummy and an archeologist.
He opens his eyes
Falls in love at first sight with the girl
In the doorway
With beautiful lines, how full of the life
After thousands of years
What a face to wake up to
…Of an unruly teenage girl getting sent to Bible school in Missouri.
Mama got a look at you and got a little worried
Papa got a look at you and got a little worried
Pastor got a look and said, “ya’ll had better hurry
Send her off to a little bible college in Missouri.”
And now you come back, sayin’ you know a little bit about
Every little thing they ever hoped you’d never figure out
Eve ate the apple, ’cause the apple was sweet
What kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?
…Of a Naval arctic expedition, ending in the destruction of the ship for firewood?
As the frost turned her moorings to nine-tail
And the wind lashed her sides in the cold
I burned her to keep me alive every night
In the loving embrace of her hold
And I won’t call it rescue
Ritter’s myths and legends are fictional, but not false. Indeed, he says he’s always been intrigued by the stories that make up our shared heritage. He even created his own major in college, calling it American History Through Narrative Folk Music.
Josh Ritter: I got a taste of how broad the spectrum of musical experience is in this country. That we have so many stories that we have told ourselves with songs, and that is important to realize—that, no matter how much everything is glitzy, and glamorous, and onto the next thing, we are all part of a unbroken chain of music and shared experience that goes back all the way.
But in order to fully embody music, sometimes Josh Ritter has to leave it behind. When he needs a creative cleansing, he turns to painting and writing to re-center and freshen his perspective.
Ritter: Sometimes you have to go someplace else and remind yourself that what you’re doing is supposed to be fun. And painting is that place for me, and writing. They shut down the part of my brain that says, “This has to be perfect,” and they say, like, “This is just gonna be two hours. I’m going to relax. I’m not gonna think about anything.” And I don’t feel like I have to be good at it.
AJC: There’s a lovely quote about you about you, about how you regard the various different arts that you make. You kind of fill up a bucket of stuff, and that runs off.
AJC: And some of it becomes songs, some part of it became a novel.
AJC: And now some of it’s becoming a painting. Is it all the same stuff though?
Ritter: There’s something that I like to…Mark Twain once said, about the past, that it doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. And I feel like there’s a correspondence there, with all kinds of artistic work that you’re doing. There are baseline preoccupations with huge problems in life and big questions. I think I can come out, and you know, in various ways—whether it’s painting, or words, or music—but it all comes from that same kind of deep well.
Ultimately, though, music is Josh Ritter’s primary artistic tool. It’s a salve for loneliness, when life’s uncertainties make themselves all too apparent.
Ritter: Art is proof that somebody else out there thinking what you’re thinking, or asking the questions you’re asking. And it’s really, really nice, during lonely times, to see somebody else asking the same questions, whether that’s on stage, or in a movie, or in a book, the magazine, on the radio.
AJC: Sharing your misery.
Ritter: Sharing your misery, sharing your questions, like, sharing, also, your optimism, and your hope, and your belief that, you know, when it gets down to it, we’re all gonna be there for each other.