If I’m honest, any list of reasons to listen to Josh Ritter’s music feels superfluous to the music itself. In fact, if you want to cue up Spotify right now and listen to Animal Years or So Runs the World Away or Live from Vicar Street, I’m totally fine with that. If, however, you’re still here, allow me to elucidate for you a little about Mr. Ritter’s particular gifts.
1. Let’s Just Get the Dylan Thing Out of the Way
At some point, probably after Springsteen rejected the crown, we decided as a culture to burden every songwriter with an acoustic guitar and any lyrical sensibility as The New Dylan. We’re like this, you know, always hunting for the next this or that. Jordan, Shakespeare, Hendrix, Hitler; we just can’t get enough of the perverse hunt to dethrone those figures who have presided, titanic, over our culture. That said, Josh Ritter is absolutely the logical heir to Dylan’s folky throne, except without the heft of cultural baggage that Dylan has had to drag behind him since the mid-sixties. Listen to “Girl in the War,” “Change of Time,” or especially “Thin Blue Flame,” and tell me that Ritter doesn’t have the lyrical chops and Pathos to draw legitimate comparison to Mr. Zimmerman.
2. The Legend of Inspiration
It isn’t quite Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads, but the story of how Ritter came to follow his musical calling is pretty impressive on its own merit. Josh grew up in Moscow, Idaho (seriously), the son of two neuroscientists. He was all set to follow in their footsteps until he heard Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” from Nashville Skyline, promptly fell in love with folk music and bought his first guitar. At Oberlin College in Ohio, Ritter furthered his own mystique by creating his own major: “American History Through American Folk Music.” I can see it now: HIS 470: The Language of Protest- from Seeger to Guthrie to Dylan to CSNY.
3. The Live Shows
One of the best things about music is getting to see a favorite artist in the flesh. I’ve seen a lot of impressive shows in my time, but when I saw Josh Ritter play the Taft Theater in Cincinnati, I was blown away by the careful attention Josh showed the audience, and the genuine joy performing seemed to bring him. He literally smiles the entire time he’s on stage, even while he’s singing. And since he’s at the perfect level of notoriety to play mostly theater and small-venue shows, you probably won’t have to pay a ton to see him, you’ll probably get a good seat, and the intimacy of the show will double its impact.
4. His Literary Twist
This one actually kind of drives me crazy, but that’s just the blinding envy talking. In 2011, Josh published a novel, Bright’s Passage, which I haven’t read because if it’s good (and from everything I hear, it is) – like, really, truthfully excellent as a piece of literature apart from the greatness of his music – it might kill me. Once you listen to his stuff, it isn’t surprising at all that Ritter has literary ambitions. Allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible abound in his lyrics, and his passion for storytelling resounds in songs like “The Curse” and “Another New World.”
5. Putting Up a Fight
I look for a lot of the same things in music that I look for in books. I want music, if possible, that pushes, cajoles, and challenges me to think about myself, my philosophies, my theology, and all the things that make me who I am. There may be no higher function of the artist than to make the rusty cogs of our brains kick into gear and start turning, and Josh Ritter was made to serve that function. “Thin Blue Flame” and “Girl in the War” are the strongest examples, but I can’t think of another artist whose lyrics and sentiments (rampant with humanism and skepticism and hope) consistently jar me as much as Ritter’s do, and I mean that as high praise.