“I’m writing something for Johnny Cash,” Josh Ritter says. “I didn’t have anyone else to say it to.”
It’s Friday morning, September 12, Cash is gone, and Ritter, hanging out in Boston the day before a gig, yearns for an audience. He writes and then posts to the message board on his website: “What I always found to be most inspiring about Mr. Cash was his belief that underneath the ragged and the dirty and the impure and the evil, there was a true being which could emerge from time to time.”
Musician, songwriter, scribbler, reader, romantic: Josh Ritter’s voice and talent are still emerging, still coming into focus. “I don’t try to write,” he says. “I try not to wring anything out. You have to be patient with the songs. One thing I’ve learned from Golden Age Of Radio [his first widely distributed record] up till now is that nothing comes from pushing yourself. You have to read a lot, do interesting things, live a full life.”
With Hello Starling, released in September on Boston independent label Signature Sounds, Ritter sketches out life lived as a “bright thing,” a tumbling on “by luck or grace,” where “behind every cloud is a purpose only now we can see.” Though it was recorded in rural France, the record preserves Ritter’s ties to the musicians he met in his earliest endeavors, and to intimate acoustic conversations between voice and guitar. The record signals no great departure from his fledgling efforts; all the same, he stretches his songwriting wings with light, unstrained assurance.
Ritter’s life and career began in Moscow, Idaho, a town of grain silos and rural routes, largely settled by Mormons and Swedes, along the Bitteroot mountains, two hours from the Canadian border. More liberal than most of the state (largely due to its proximity to two large universities), Moscow counteracted rural provincialism.
Ritter’s parents, both scientists, taught at Washington State University (just across the state line in Pullman), and throughout high school, Ritter, when he thought about it at all, saw himself pursuing a similar career. He played sports, learned without loving the classical violin, and decided to attend Oberlin College in Ohio to major in neuroscience. If music was on the horizon, it was barely in focus.
“My folks didn’t have many records,” he says. “They loved medieval church music, the harpsichord. But for some reason they loved the Oak Ridge Boys. Growing up, I thought the Oak Ridge Boys were incredible. And then there was Nashville Skyline. That was the most incredible music; although I loved Sgt. Pepper’s in fourth grade.
“But I don’t know why I never considered playing music. It seemed like something that real people couldn’t do. I didn’t have friends who played or sang. I had a vague knowledge of Dylan and Cash, but when I heard Nashville Skyline, they seemed like the most real people, sort of strung out and sad. Hearing that record the first time was like meeting that person you know you’re going to marry.”
Ritter is a relative latecomer to his devotion. He was 18 before he’d ever picked up a guitar or considered songwriting. “In high school, I wanted to find something I loved in the way that my parents loved what they did,” he says. “It might have been the same day, or the day after, I heard Nashville Skyline, but I went down to Kmart and bought a guitar and immediately started writing. It was like getting a key and looking down a long hallway.”
In Moscow, he taught himself to play by ear, just as he had with the violin, but he did so alone, without a sympathetic teacher, without a band. For every chord he learned, he wrote a new song. He found Mississippi John Hurt records and learned to fingerpick, but writing remained an intensely private, almost remote, affair. “I wanted something that was special to me,” he says, “something that was my song.”
At Oberlin, Ritter met drummer Darius Zelkha and bassist and guitarist Zac Hickman, and with them began taping his songs. The recording facilities at Oberlin were free and the new musical friendships were illuminating. “Zac was one of the few people at the conservatory who would have anything to do with me; I wasn’t a good guitar player then,” he admits. “Darius lived just down the hall. I hadn’t heard Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, and he played that stuff for me.”
By his junior year, Ritter had abandoned science for good, and wound up designing his own course of study, focusing on American history as told through folk music. “I couldn’t bear to think of all that money going down the drain,” he says of his decision to switch directions.
Along the way, he spent six months at the University of Edinburgh, scouring the folklore archives, immersing himself in the traditions behind the American traditions. “Once you hear where real music comes from,” he says, “music that’s not driven by singles, there are all these great people you feel kinship too. Like with Johnny Cash, you almost feel you have some stake in what they do.”
Although he was developing an ever more intimate, ever more folk-based understanding of songwriting, Ritter still hadn’t found an audience. Like a thousand other shy singer-songwiters before him, he turned to open mikes. “I felt something happening to my body that was completely uncomfortable,” he says of his first performance. “It was like skydiving, in a way, or like writing a song; when you’re done you think about the next time you’ll do it. If you don’t perform, the engine dries up, and you need to go out and do it again before you can do anything else. But the satisfaction is personal. You’re either satisfied inside or not, and you act accordingly the next time.”