Part of it has to do with this theory I’ve been cultivating, that music both underground and mainstream is moving in a direction of more heart-on-sleeve, un-clichéd sincerity. Artists like the Kimya Dawson, Amos Lee and Melanie Horsnell have been breaking into a formerly cynical, bottom line-obsessed business with quirky, off-kilter songs about real emotion performed with admirably skewed style. Ritter seems to fit into that eccentric singer/songwriter classification, but there’s something more about him. Namely, energy.
I’m not talking woo-woo cosmic energy here. I mean the actual combustible kind that involves singing lots of words really fast while his band holds down a bombastic pace. There’s a sense of barely controlled madness, backed by an undeniable glee. On stage, Ritter grins like his cheeks are about to burst. He acts like a kid at his own birthday party and talks to the audience with an “aw-shucks” affect so hyper-sincere one would think he was just dropped off the turnip wagon.
But Ritter is hardly a hayseed, Idaho upbringing aside. He’s obviously business savvy, playing to a willing audience. He’s disarming, engaging, and holds tight reign on his well-heeled group of musicians. Even more importantly, he knows how to write a song. There are obvious nods to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, especially apparent on jangly, sonic melanges like “To the Dogs or Whomever.” It’s the vastness of organ, the kick peddle thump of bass drum, the talking blues style, the way he hammers home the chorus.
According to Wikipedia, Ritter went to Oberlin College to study neuroscience (in case you didn’t believe me earlier when I said he wasn’t a hayseed) but wound up graduating — no, not as a music major, that would be too easy — with a self-designed major in American History through Narrative Folk Music. My point here is the guy knows a thing or two about music. But what he does on stage — the performance, the goofy-suave banter, the nice-guy songs with their biting underbellies, the wrapping of the audience around his finger … they don’t teach that at college. Not even Oberlin.
And it’s not just me who think this guy might be exceptional. After headlining with Joan Baez, she recorded a version of his song “Wings.” I mean, it’s not like Joan Baez is out there covering just anyone.
Ritter’s latest album is last year’s (not-so-unassumingly named) The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. Give it a listen.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter