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No Virgin Wurlitzer Heart Ever Had a Song
The Americana of songwriter Josh Ritter

The 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.

Broken mystery

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 his songs.

"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
www.joshritter.com


-- Colin Cheney



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