Passing the Torch

Idaho's small-town crooner


Josh Ritter is not the new hip, young artist to crawl out of the famed Chelsea Hotel and be immediately heralded as "life-changing" by Spin or Pitchfork (though Pitchfork gave his newest album a sterling review). In fact, Ritter was born a few hours north of here about 10 miles outside the university town of Moscow. Small-town life afforded Ritter time to devote his efforts to his art, as opposed to being distracted by the newest, fresh-faced MTV-endorsed band.

When I spoke to Ritter recently, he said he had to search for great songwriters when he was young, mainly by combing his parents' record collection. "When I did find them, I began to realize the ones I really loved all came from out of the way places just like I did," he said. "Dylan came from Hibbing, Minn., Cash from Dyess, Ark., Neil Young from Ontario, Canada ... When you grow up out of the way, the music you latch on to becomes incredibly valuable."

It was the small-town crooners Dylan and Cash that changed Ritter's life. Their music sounded nothing like the candied-up tunes of Garth Brooks et al. that was playing on the radio. It sounded fun, and Josh wanted in. So he bought a plywood guitar from the discount store and immediately started writing songs.

A year later Ritter went to Oberlin College. He first intended to follow in the neuroscience footsteps of his parents, but eventually followed his heart and decided to make a career of music. Ritter changed his major to history, basically the history of America through music, and with only a few years of playing under his belt, he started playing open mics. While doing the bloody knuckles approach of learning the guitar onstage, Ritter also self-recorded his first CD.

After graduation, he moved to Boston and continued to gain stage confidence by playing open mics. Between small East Coast tours and a few temp jobs, he recorded his second album, The Golden Age of Radio, for $1,000. The album immediately caught the attention of the media and an expanding audience. Golden Age of Radio's title track is a rollicking number to contrast today's sterile radio playlists with a time when Patsy Cline was on the Grande Ole Opry. The album, as a whole, is a timeless and artistic future classic.

Through a series of conversations, gigs and coincidences, Josh ended up on a plane to Ireland to try his music out on a foreign audience. The Irish love folk music and Ireland is a small country where word of mouth can build artists such as David Gray and Damien Rice into royalty. After two weeks in Ireland, Ritter was headlining his own shows. A few months later, he was voted in the top five for best international folk act, international male songwriter, and international male singer in the Irish Hot Press Reader's Poll Awards.

As the U.S. began catching on, Ritter went to France to record his third masterpiece, Hello Starling. Originally released on the folk label Signature Sounds, the album went to number two in Ireland. Josh started to play some bigger gigs such as the Newport and Cambridge Folk Festivals and the Sundance Film Festival. He was even nominated for last year's Shortlist Prize by Grammy hoarder Norah Jones. Eventually, Hello Starling caught the ear of V2 Records and with their support, Ritter has been able to release his album properly stateside.

Released on February 22, the CD is packaged with a live EP showcasing Ritter's ability to enchant a crowd. As his career begins to gain permanent appeal, Ritter couldn't be happier.

He now splits his time between Moscow, the East Coast and Ireland. He considers himself to be successful. "I've always considered the ability to devote your life to playing music the ultimate prize a musician can attain, and to have a lifestyle that can sustain long periods of sitting, thinking and writing. All the other stuff, awards, supposed big record deals-all of that-it doesn't mean anything if it distracts you from why you began playing music in the first place," Ritter confided. "I'm so happy these days. I can get up in the morning and write and then go on a run and have lunch and settle back down to writing again. I love it. When I go on the road to perform, I get to go all over the world and meet all kinds of people who come to see my shows. Things can get bigger in scale but they can't get better. This is tops. I'm making a real living out of the love I have for writing songs. I'm a pretty lucky guy."

In a time when new pop artists are here today, gone today, Ritter is just beginning to relax into what should prove to be a long and fruitful career.