Josh Ritter has been called one of America's greatest living songwriters. Everyone from Stephen King to Cameron Crowe has sung his praises; even Joan Baez has sung his songs. But still, 12 years into his musical career, he is floored when you tell him you are a fan. And when you begin to tell him you are reading his new novel, he cuts you off: "Oh, thank you. Thank you so much."
The Idaho native comes by his aw-shucks attitude naturally. As an undergraduate at Oberlin College, where he had gone to study neuroscience, he did not change paths to become a rock star or a critical darling.
"With music, the last thing you should try to do is chase people to listen," Ritter says. He is on the phone in a noisy airport, about to fly to a book reading in Seattle, followed by a musical appearance at the Vancouver Folk Festival. "You do what you do, and you do it for yourself, and you do it because you love it. Trying to convince people to love you is always unrewarding."
The music Ritter produces with his backing band, the Royal City Band, tends toward folk-rock and has become fuller over the years, shifting from the man-with-a-guitar sound of his self-titled first album to the orchestral sweep of his most recent full-length effort, So Runs the World Away.
He sings at times like a gentler Bruce Springsteen or a less-weathered John Prine, and he is no stranger to eight-minute story songs. Some of his most straightforward narrative songs are about an Egyptian mummy falling in love with an archaeologist and an Arctic explorer falling in love with his ship. None of the songs are confessional, he says.
"I think there's enough people talking about themselves in the world," Ritter says. "I have absolutely no desire to open up my diary and read from it for people."
Ritter's debut novel, Bright's Passage, started out as a song. What it became was the story of Henry Bright, a young soldier returning from the First World War to his cabin in West Virginia. An angel who saved his life in the war begins to speak to him through his horse, ordering him to kidnap and marry the daughter of his deranged and violent neighbor, the Colonel. Bright grudgingly complies, falls in love with the Colonel's daughter, and the two have a child, whom the angel horse refers to as the new King of Heaven. The opening scene is of Bright's wife dying in childbirth, and Bright and the child spend the next 190 pages fleeing the murderous Colonel and a raging forest fire, all while flashing back periodically to the war.
As stories go, Bright's Passage is vintage Ritter. He has written his fair share of songs about frontiersmen, ramblers, and horses, and loyal listeners are no strangers to the patina of yesteryear Americana. Part of that tendency has to do with his upbringing in the Idaho panhandle, a place with plenty of wheat farming, timber, and rodeos, and where "a lot of the past doesn't sound far away," he says.
In the early stages of his career, touring the American Northeast and the Emerald Isle with Irish indie-folk band the Frames, he came to feel more Idahoan than ever. Part of his inspiration, too, comes from Louis L'Amour paperback Westerns.
"I just love the idea of the Western as a form," he says. "It's got a small number of characters that are used in all these different ways. You have the conflicted good guy or the bad guy with the heart of gold. It's kind of Shakespearean, you know? You've got the good girl gone bad and the timber baron. The originality of the story is dependent on the originality of the writer."
Other common Ritter tropes include ancient Egyptian history and Bible stories, though he is no Christian apologist. Raised Lutheran, he has a hard time believing in and loving the God of the Christian scriptures.
"I'm probably just as conflicted as most people," he says, "but I find it funny that, while these stories are such a huge part of our culture, we don't talk about them in our pop music. To me it seems like a waste."
Ritter's own songwriting heroes include Tom Petty, Gillian Welch, and Lupe Fiasco, but he holds a special place for Neil Young and Springsteen for "honoring their relationships and having a good life and not getting lost on the road." Tom Waits, too, he adds. "They're roll-up-their-sleeves kind of guys, and I like that."
In concert, Josh Ritter never stops grinning. It is as if he can't believe all these people would show up to hear him play. A surefire singalong is "Lantern," off of So Runs the World Away, which sounds more like a personal creed than Ritter lets on: "So throw away those lamentations/We all know them all too well/If there's a Book of Jubilations/We'll have to write it for ourselves/So come and lie beside me darling/And let's write it while we've still got time."