No Virgin Wurlitzer Heart Ever Had
The Americana of songwriter Josh Ritter
songs of Idaho-born songwriter Josh Ritter cut like a plow-blade
cuts through the ground of North America. Conestoga wagons,
desert missions, and the ghost of Patsy Cline are each glimpsed
fleetingly as Ritter's train-songs run from Pennsylvania steel
mills toward the hope of a heaven somewhere out there in the
Great Plains. The midnight, sweet-burning smells of the Domino
sugar factory in the song "Anne" draw Williamsburg
into the sweeping Americana of Josh Ritter's record Golden
Age of Radio, out on Signature Sounds. Ritter's songs are
composed of dreamed townships full of ghosted and mythic personalities,
and some real, unearthed America that any of us could glimpse
if we lingered long enough to see it. Like Gillian Welch and
David Rawlings, David Berman, Richard Buckner, and Ryan Adams
(on his best Heartbreaker days), Josh Ritter's songsmithing
brings an edge of relevance to today's alt-country, indy rock,
and new folk scenes - making these terms seem utterly insufficient
to describe the work any of these artists are involved in.
I spoke with Josh Ritter before his show at the Fez Under
Time. During his sound check, Ritter played a few bars of
his song "Lawrence, KS" while Zack Hickman's fisherman's
pump organ swelled and the walls shook from the passing 6
train. As she passed by my seat in the back of the room, Kim
Richey -the Lost Highways artist who Ritter was on tour with
-sang a quiet harmony to the line "It's a fenced in piece
of nothing where I hear voices on my knees." Later, during
the show, Richey came onstage to sing on Ritter's "Come
and Find Me" and announced that immediately after hearing
the song for the first time on her car stereo she'd decided
she would demand to sing harmony on it during their tour.
Ritter grinned his best Idaho grin and began the song: "Well
I can trace the line that ran, between your smile and your
slight of hand, I'll bet that you put something up my sleeve."
Watching the audience during the song, its clear that he's
got each young lady in the audience convinced that his refrain
of "Come and Find Me," is meant only for her. After
hearing this song (written, Ritter told me, while sitting
on the floor of "a dirty, dirty hostel" in Edinburgh,
Scotland), a female friend of mine leaned forward and whispered:
I'm right here, I'm right here.
New York was one of Ritter's favored stops on his one-man,
sleep deprived driving tours of the East and Midwest when
he worked to get his songs out while living off Wickendon
Street in Providence, Rhode Island. In the song "Anne,"
Ritter sings, "Anne walks alone, past the Domino Sugar
factory / she's as easy to know as a broken mystery."
As a writer for Williamsburg's finest publication, I was
of course curious how this sweet industry on the East River
found its way onto a record composed largely of rural landscapes.
"The first time I was ever in New York, I was staying
with a friend of mine -Peter Yarrow's son," Ritter
explained (that's Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary).
"I'd made a tape when I first started writing and I
sent it to a bunch of people. Peter Yarrow answered back
and asked me to come out to New York. So I came out and
hung out with him for a couple of days and stayed at his
son's place - in Brooklyn. I was out walking late at night
and I got off the T - I mean the subway - at the wrong stop
and I smelled the sugar from the Domino factory." This
sort of Williamsburg "broken mystery" fills the
quiet, urban songs of this largely hayfields-and-corn husks
record. A stay in New York also inspired an unreleased song
called "Central Park" that Ritter wrote and record
with Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and Gordon Henswood of
The Frames, that has yet to be released.
Ritter's Idaho sensibility provides a background for much
of his songwriting. "I'd have to live in the city a
lot longer to become an urban songwriter," he said.
"Even if I'm trying to write a song that doesn't deal
with a rural theme I feel like [my background] comes in
a lot. My Idaho accent comes out singing things like water-tower."
Ritter grew up in the town of Moscow (pronounced "Moss-co"
Idaho style), which is, as he says, "the most cosmopolitan
of all the places around there. Let's see, there was Oak
River, Boville. The town I'm nearest to is Viola - population
of about twenty five - real crazy place." His homage
to his hometown years, the song "Me and Jiggs,"
talks of drinking beers in the park like good, red blooded
American boys, and "sitting on the porch singing Townes
Van Zandt, play[ing] guitars to burn off the hours,"
calling upon the late Texan troubadour as some apparition
of harmony on the song. Ritter explains that "Me and
Jiggs" was written about when he and his friend Rocky
decided that the best way to get the girl of their dreams
to go to the prom with one of them was to paint her name
on the local water-tower. But alack, with a couple of beers
in them, their "H" became an "N" and
they ended up scrawling "SARAN," across the tower,
leaving some Moscow beauty wondering at the intended flattery.
Not too flashy
Like the best of poets, Josh Ritter wields fiction as deftly
as he does experience. Sometimes it is unclear, in both
his songs and in person, where Ritter's actual life ends
and his stories take over. His explanations of songs during
his concerts have a shifting quality about them. The stories
change shape gradually with each telling, in the same way
that folk stories and myths are reworked over time, as though
the teller is making sure that the story is the "truest"
it can be at any given moment. Ritter is quite conscious
of the doppelganger his songs create and is often trying
to work out the balance of his own life against that of
"It's always weird when you meet someone after a show
they're really excited about the music but that doesn't
mean they know who you are. Sometimes I think I write songs
because and I feel like that's the person who I would like
to be - whether that means more daring, or less of a jerk.
The coolest thing about poets or writers, or songwriters,
the really good ones
they don't get so personal that
I can tell that are writing about themselves. I just don't
like it when a songwriter writes about something that I
know just happened to them." He paused to think for
a moment and then said "But certainly - I mean let's
say you've got a water-tower in your town, and you know
everybody paints on it. Well, you take that and you try
to make it something that's yours, but that's something
that everybody can relate to. I definitely don't want the
songs to be so personal that they can't think what it might
be like to walk by the Domino Sugar factory at night - which
is sorta lonely. Everybody in New York who might've walked
by that, or lives in Brooklyn, might understand that."
Ritter believes songwriting to be the way in which he's
able to realize the best, and perhaps most real, parts of
himself. "A lot of times I feel like I'm just acting,
you know, if I'm doing something that someone who had more
confidence could pull off," he said. "Songwriting's
the first thing I've felt totally confident doing, that
I'm custom making something of my own that fits me. It's
like taking a suit that's not too flashy, and you just feel
comfortable wearing it. Every song of mine that I really
like, I feel I'm more of myself when I'm singing it - so
in a way it makes me more comfortable with myself. When
I'm on stage I'm the better version of me."
Where almost anything could happen
Just as Ritter lets his songwriting define his awareness
of himself, he uses his songs to render a greater world,
some of it real, some of it hoped for. Golden Age of Radio
is testimony to an America part-dreamed and part-experienced.
"Other Side," one of the first song written for
the record, sets the tone for much of it. The song begins:
Say the West is a story we made up to erase,
Conastoga wagons left tracks we can see from space.
From the North West passage to the great Divide,
Everybody's looking for the other side.
Ritter started writing the songs for Golden Age of Radio
out in this openness of middle America. "In the West,
and in the Midwest too, there are these places where almost
anything could happen," Ritter said. "So you can
write a song about Omaha and it gives Omaha a certain flavor
that people who haven't been there can see."
"A lot of the songs I wrote when I was driving from
Idaho and Boston
taking my brother to school. I hadn't
written anything all summer and I was really scared about
this whole music thing, and I think it
.took away my
ability to write. On that trip out I started having ideas
and wrote the song 'Other Side.' I wrote it in Mitchell,
SD, which is right near where my family is ancestrally from.
My mom's whole side of the family is from a little town
called Culomba, from the 1870s on. I was really interested
in the area, and I wrote the song on, like, pizza box. After
that I just started writing more and more. It gave me a
starting place for the rest of the record."
Trial by fire
Golden Age of Radio is at once a great songbook of individually
well-wrought songs and an album length piece that only reveals
itself fully when taken as a whole. The songs range from
intimate, finger-picked numbers like "Come and Find
Me," and the Nick Drake-inspired "You've got the
Moon," to full band romps like "Me and Jiggs,"
the title track, and "Harrisburg." Ritter's voice
is clear and confident, and the musicianship and production
fleshes out and leaves space for the songwriting at all
the right moments. Produced by drummer and manager Darius
Zelkha, Golden Age of Radio also features Zack Hickman and
Jason Humphrey who split the remaining duties of bass, electric
and acoustic guitars, accordion, and mandolin. Zelkha and
Hickman also backed up Ritter on his eponymous 1999 record,
released on his own Hungry Ear label out of Idaho and Providence.
Ritter released an earlier version of Golden Age of Radio
on Hungry Ear (including an alternate version of the title
track - then called "Country Song" - and a slightly
different order to the songs) before he was picked up, and
the record re-released through Signature Sounds - the preeminent,
Massachusetts-based folk label. Having had to pave his own
way for several years, selling his records to fans at shows
at colleges, backyards, folk festivals, and indy rock clubs
up and down the Eastern seaboard, Ritter says that being
on Signature has taught him to "appreciate everything."
On Signature, Ritter is in the company of the best and brightest
in the new folk scene - Erin McKeown, Peter Mulvey, Richard
Shindell, Tracy Grammer and (the late) Dave Carter - and
fits as well there as he does amongst Irish-rockers The
Frames, and Songs:Ohia, both of whom he has toured with
in the U.S. and Ireland.
Ireland has been particularly kind to Josh Ritter. After
hearing one of Ritter's shows in Boston (where Ritter now
makes his home), Glen Hansard asked him to tour with The
Frames in Ireland in 2001. Since then Ritter has returned
to headline his own shows, continuing to play with The Frames,
as well as fellow troubadour Martin Finke, and has become
a favorite at festivals across Ireland. "Going [to
Ireland] was a real trial by fire. I started out by being
invited by Glen to play a few songs before he did on his
sets, and so I'd play my song but in front of four hundred
noisy Irish people, and I was freaking out. But at a certain
point you start enjoying that - it's a friendly battle.
You can't let them know you're scared, ever. If they put
you in charge, you have to be in charge. It really taught
me how to let go when I'm performing - there are certain
things you can't learn except being out in front of a thousand
people." Ritter returned to Ireland in June to tour
with folksinger Jess Klein opening.
Suit of songs
During his set at the Fez under Time, Ritter wears his
best suit of songs, making his way through beautiful renditions
of "Lawrence, KS" and new songs "Wings,"
and "Kathleen." In "Kathleen" when he
sings "but no virgin Wurlitzer heart ever had a song,"
(or at least that's what he sounds like he's singing) you're
glad that Ritter found what work his heart was best suited
to. His songs are simple, poetic, unassuming and catchy
- all the makings of timeless American songwriting. In "Lawrence,
KS" he sings:
Preacher says that when the Master calls us,
He's gonna bring us wings to fly
But my wings are made of hay and corn husks
And I can't leave this world behind.
Listening to Josh Ritter perform in the subterranean speak-easy
of the Fez, with trains rumbling in the walls and through
his songs, it's clear that he and his songs are here to
stay. When asked what he hopes for in his future as a musician
and songwriter, Ritter says "The career I really admire
is the type that Tom Waits has - he's not selling millions
of records, but he's selling really well, and he's got the
respect of the people who listen to him. That's what I'd
really like." As long as his Wurlitzer keeps turning
out songs, Josh Ritter seems well on his way to whatever
career his little jukebox-of-a-heart desires.
For more on Josh Ritter, including MP3s, visit
-- Colin Cheney