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Josh Ritter the Smiling Folk-Rock Mountain Man


Josh Ritter of the State of Idaho has been composing, singing and smiling through a pretty impressive streak of musical success over the course of a decade and more.

This man, a contemporary of mine in both age and region of origin, consistently (a) delights with his lyrical complexity and verve; (b) honors America with his inspired evocations of her lands and people; (c) and, featuring a tight band, simply rocks.

What follows is a setlist and brief commentary. No obligation falls on anyone to favor the man’s music; but I do feel obliged to give my reasons for why I do.

Begin with this triumvirate of genius: “Wolves,” “To the Dogs or Whoever,” and “Where the Night Goes.”

Listen to those three tunes and you’ll discover a vigorous upbeat rock band backing an American poetic performer of power and subtlety.

Want more?

There is the zaniness and verbal fun of “The Next to the Last True Romantic,” or the infectious cacophony of “Rumors.” “See Me Through,” a somewhat obscure classic, mimics John Lennon’s “Imagine” without the pretentious lyrics: pretentious lyrics are by far the worst problem with “Imagine.”

Next up, consider the deep American synthesis of “Folk Bloodbath,” which rivals any Dylan or even Johnny Cash version of Delia & Lewis Collins and that whole legendary drama. Among the many brilliant sentences is this one: “Out of Stackalee’s came Stackalee’s cold lonely little ghost.”

Following that, take in the hilarious cynicism of “Galahad.” This song has a handful of off-color cracks, but its deep sense of fun carries through: like its best line this song is “More error than knight-errantry.”

Moving along:

One of Ritter’s earliest, “Kathleen,” while nearly fifteen years old, has aged extremely well. “Snow Is Gone,” of roughly the same vintage, backs it up.

Following all these, “Monster Ballads” seems to me among the most beautiful of its kind in my lifetime. That rounds it out. Ten songs. There is the reader’s setlist.

(One extra? Okay: the live version of “Golden Age of Radio” in Dublin, Ireland, the country where this grinning American mountain man, by some fascinating romance of chance, first caught fire.)

It is, of course, one of the marks of musical success to take a genre, rework it under mild pressure from your own creative mind, and produce an appealing variation on the tradition. Bob Dylan’s regional blues, for instance — each style identifiably in the blues tradition, but unmistakably the Troubadour’s own interpretation.

This sort of thing Ritter achieves regularly in his recordings. Creative variations on a tradition.

Alas, in his lyrics Ritter has turned harder and harder against God as he has aged, though losing none of his descriptive vigor. Contemporaneously, I have turned harder and harder against petty-boy atheism, which it is sadly not uncommon for him anymore. So just ignore that horseshit.

I don’t propose Josh Ritter to be, on the written page, a superlative writer; nor do I suppose his band’s playing to be unquestionably superb. But what I do say is that these guys put those two things together with emphatic vim and elegance.

I went to a Ritter show in Atlanta some years ago — 2012, if memory serves — where he was the opening act but should have been the closer. I heard “Wolves” and “Monster Ballads” live. I can attest to the man smiling through every song. He is quick to laugh or cheer with the crowd. That warmth is potent. He’s an eminently good-natured performer.

Most likely it is because he has tested the waters of great American music and come back encouraged. So much the pity given the recent streak of cynicism.

Hailing from Idaho, one of the few states I have never set foot in (though I came very close one trip to Yellowstone), he nevertheless shares with me a Mountain West heritage. The vast spaces, crossways and vertical; the crisp dry air and astounding blue skies; the caprice of weather and fearsome upthrustings of the Rockies — all these are familiar to Josh Ritter, as they are to me. They represent youth’s home.

More recently Ritter has ventured to the Deep South: and the Deep South’s most peculiar, varied, filthy and tragic city, New Orleans. You want to talk about musical richness, and human excrement richness, talk about NOLA. Ritter sought out both, I suppose.

His fine 2015 album Sermon on the Rocks was recorded there. Aside from the one self-consciously country song, “Cumberland,” only a few fleeting touches of Southern charm stand out in these songs, but a deep subterranean feeling of coonass-redneck-black-French-Spanish diversity undergirds the whole thing. And indeed, even “Cumberland” sports a little spot of zydeco.

So this guy is fun and he is good. Check out Josh Ritter.

Image credit: Sean Rowe - http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjr-images/4074163795/, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Comments (9)

Well, this is a fine write-up and a solid set list, but let me correct a few conspicuous oversights, if I may! :)

First, and most importantly: "Not a superlative writer"?? Name a lyricist of his generation who can out-do a line like "I got a girl in the war, man, her eyes are like champagne. They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain." Or could compose a clever, poignant story-song like Temptation of Adam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FH9MhovIY9g

Speaking of which, Ritter's antagonism to religion is vexing, but he nevertheless often shows a deep biblical literacy. His latest album, especially, is packed full of biblical imagery, starting with the title itself--sometimes coyly turned around on itself in a humorous way, but often quite sincere. Again, compared to songwriters of his generation, this is pretty extraordinary.

Finally, if you want to experience the joy that is inherent in Josh Ritter's music and personality, and also just add another little masterpiece to your set list, I would highlight A Good Man: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C81SyunWMAQ

Where's "Another New World?" By far his best. From the same album, "Lark" (the Paul Simon is strong with this one) and "Lantern."

I wouldn't say these songs are based on petty-boy atheism but rather a skepticism mixed with a desire for faith.
Bon Iver and The Staves "Heavenly Father" acapella (language warning)

Cuff the Duke "If I Live, or if I Die", apparently used in the HBO show True Detective

Elephant -- those are all good songs (I also love "Circuital" with its marvelous verbal interplay of dualities). In general, I thought So Runs the World Away was a step down from the genius of Historical Conquests and Animal Years. Still a good album though.

Chris -- as I said to you in personal correspondence, you neglected my qualifying phrase "on the printed page." Not sure that reading Josh Ritter songs as poetry is much better than Dylan, Springsteen or anyone else. But I take your point: as a musical lyricist, Ritter is right up there with anyone. (Oh, and "Good Man" is a great song too. But on my own initiative, I had to confine myself to ten.)

Step2 -- always appreciate your song links. Do you sit around waiting for me to post on music? Heh.

I wouldn't say these songs are based on petty-boy atheism but rather a skepticism mixed with a desire for faith.

Could be. That's a more charitable interpretation. Either way, Josh Ritter is one of my favorites, whatever his theological views. Last fall he was playing with Jason Isbell at the Fox in Atlanta. That would have been a great show to see but alas, I couldn't make it work.

Wow. Now I'm confusing MMJ with Josh Ritter. Yikes. "Circuital" is indeed an excellent song, but by someone else than Ritter. Elephant, the duality song I meant to say was "Orbital," by Josh Ritter, 2010.

Well, you are the only one here who writes posts about music - at least the sort of music I normally listen to. I was a little surprised you didn't write a post about Dylan's letter to the Nobel Prize committee.

I do enjoy and appreciate Josh Ritter's musical craftsmanship and storytelling talent but his style isn't as easy to connect to as most of the others I listen to. I went to the Fox once, back in 2005 if memory serves, and I wish I had taken binoculars because I was so far away from the stage. The Fox has about three times the seating capacity of the main stage theater in my town.

Enjoyable take on the smiling Troubadour. I plan on putting that seist to the tst but I agree that Monster Ballads is his best. The river imagery evoked in his Twain references is magical and as American as it gets. I'll have to pay more attention to his recent bend towards questioning/searching for faith. I had not picked up on that. I'll add that his song Homecoming off his new album is a true gem. The song is uplifting and has this feel if a man healing himself through a return to his roots, a Homecoming. And man, it makes me feel good. It happened to be a fall day when I first connected to that song, and it sent me soaring into an enjoyable nostalgia of my personal Homecomings...

I apologize for the multiple phone typos within my post. Ha.

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