Josh Ritter: Monster Ballads


Every time I start a new journal I choose a quote or a song lyric to inscribe on the first page. It’s always something that I’ve found in my reading or listening that resonates enough for me to stop and jot it down. Something that sets the new written chapter of my life in motion. Looking back at recent journals I find: The world is as the world is/everybody’s gonna hurt like hell sometimes/(I’m comin’ out of the dark clouds). Then: I’d rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know. And, in my most recent, And when you get damned in the popular opinion/it’s just another damn of the damns you’re not givin’. All telling, all lyrics by Josh Ritter.

I’m a lover of singer/songwriters. When I discover an artist I really like, I find every album they’ve ever released and listen to them on repeat until I can sing along with every song. That’s just the kind of music fan I am.

I’ve always been a lyrics person, too. I can appreciate music and melody, but what really sells me on a song is a good set of lyrics. This might have something to do with my being a writer. It’s also the main reason I am so enamored of Ritter’s work. Not only does he write lines that stand on their own like rules to live by, he weaves his music together with words to create tiny incredible stories.

In his waltzy piano piece, “The Curse,” a mummy comes to life and falls in love with the archaeologist that’s researching his life. A quiet acoustic, “The Temptation of Adam,” tells of two will-be lovers assigned to live in a missile silo compound and the decisions they face living underground. In the dark and rambling “Another New World,” a man on an early arctic expedition deeply loves the ship he ultimately has to burn to keep himself alive. The lyrics to these read like small works of fiction, pulling from all facets of history and mythology. And while not all of his songs hold this short-fiction-like quality, the rest manage to hit on universal notes of life, love, home, heartache, and joy.

I’m not the only one who has found the stories in Ritter’s music. Back in 2010 he was interviewed by Fuel Friends blog, and answered a question on the topic of story with this lovely thought: “Songs are just reimagining old stories, old feelings. It’s like in science how an electron microscope helped us to see things that had always been all around us since time immemorial, but now we saw it in a whole new way.”

Ritter was born and raised in Moscow, Idaho, a small university town in the northern part of the state. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio where initially he studied neuroscience; later he switched to a self-made major: American History Through Narrative Folk Music. At 21 he recorded his first, self-titled album and has released new and evolving work consistently for nearly 2 decades since. In 2006, Paste Magazine named him as one of the Best 100 Living Songwriters.

I first discovered Ritter the same way I discover a lot of great artists: mixed into a Pandora Radio station while riding a bus on my commute to work. Random songs like “Harrisburg” or “The Girl in the War” would catch my interest and I’d have to pull out my phone to see who was singing. Pretty soon I had no trouble recognizing Josh’s distinctive voice.

At the beginning of 2012, I packed my life into a backpack and moved to Moscow, Idaho myself. Not on some crazy fan pilgrimage, but because a friend of mine lives there, and I needed to get away from Portland for a while. It was in Ritter’s hometown – out in a log cabin at the base of Moscow Mountain – that I really started to fall in love with his work. At the time I had two of his albums, “The Animal Years” and “So Runs the World Away,” his 2006 and 2010 releases. “The Animal Years” became my go-to album for everything. I listened to it while writing, I listened to it while cooking, I listened to it while stretching, I sang songs from it to myself when I made the long bike ride into town.

I remember my friend coming home and mentioning casually that Ritter had been down at the co-op in town. I like to think I would have played it cool if I had met him, but really I know I would have fawned and made a fool of myself. Because on top of his talent, Ritter just seems like a pretty fantastic human being. He’s played pop-up shows and benefit concerts in Moscow, and always seems to be collaborating with fans. Recently he put out a call for photographs of hometowns and collaged them into a slideshow video for his song “Homecoming.” When he started posting photos of his art on Facebook, he got so much positive feedback that he invited fans to participate in an art exchange. On stage he is radiant. You can tell that he wants to be there performing every minute, getting the love, giving the love.

I’ve YouTubed videos and interviews. I’ve shown his NPR Tiny Desk Concert to anyone that will take 16 minutes, 50 seconds to watch it. If I’m ever asked about my favorite musical artists – especially songwriters – his is the first name that I will throw out. I can’t help it. I want everyone to know about his music. For me, it’s as if somehow this one man has lived all of the stories he writes and all of the love and pain and adventure he’s poured into his music, and he’s managed to calmly gather it up, transform it, and put it back out in the world like small gifts – for everyone, but also just for me.

Ritter recently released his 8th studio album, “The Sermon on the Rocks,” and I have to agree with Rolling Stone when they say, “With his latest, Ritter has achieved the near impossible, fully reimagining his own art while still holding close to what’s always made him special.” The new album, recorded entirely in New Orleans, has reinvented his sound while staying true to what I love most about his work: it feels a little like visiting with an old friend.

He made a stop in Portland on his current tour and I had secured tickets months in advance. He jumped around on stage – even threw in a kick or two – jammed with his fellow band mates, and kneeled before his keyboard player during a solo. Later, standing on his own, he rattled off a story about a gas station where he would sometimes witness “the most awkward drug deals.” He was talking a lot, he explained, because he was a little nervous, then employed his trademark grin before launching into an old favorite, “Snow is Gone.” I left Revolution Hall feeling energized by his passion and talent. And I’m happy to report I could sing along to almost every word of every song.

Stay Backwords,

Ginger Duncan

Ginger Duncan is a writer of poetry, flash fiction, and creative non-fiction. A native Oregonian, she lives and works in Portland, but always has her eye out for a new adventure. Image courtesy of Saadet Guzeller.

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