News Column

Writing songs that survive

May 2, 2013

YellowBrix

May 02--Josh Ritter is a writer.

Yes, he's making a pretty good living off music these days. His latest album, "The Beast in Its Tracks," jumped to No. 3 on Billboard's folk chart shortly after its March release. He had good company, as it was sandwiched between works by super-hot folk/rock acts The Lumineers and Mumford & Sons.

Still, writing is what drives Ritter. He not only carefully crafts each song like a mini-novel, he also writes novels, including "Bright's Passage," about a World War I soldier from West Virginia. His partner and the mother of his 5-month-old daughter is novelist Haley Tanner.

And the big turning point of his career came when fellow (and slightly better-known) writer Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly in 2006 that Ritter's "The Animal Years" was the best album of the year.

"That piece of writing changed my life. In a very real way, people started listening to my music after reading what (King) wrote," said Ritter.

Ritter has never met King, who lives in Bangor, but he and his Royal City Band will be visiting King's home state next week when they play Portland's State Theatre on Wednesday. Ritter's partner and daughter will be traveling with him.

New York-based folk rockers The Felice Brothers will open.

Ritter, 36, certainly talks a lot more like a writer than someone who gets off on screaming crowds and the rock-star life.

"I was a reader way before I was into music," said Ritter. "I have a lot of ideas to write, and songs were kind of the first bucket I could pour them into. It's not so much about any particular kind of music, it's about how the song survives. I really believe that."

Ritter grew up in Moscow, Idaho. Despite taking violin lessons, he didn't get seriously interested in music until he was 17 and heard Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash's "Girl from the North Country" on Dylan's "Nashville Skyline."

He went to Oberlin College in Ohio and majored in neuroscience, but quickly changed to history with a concentration on folk music. He played music -- he had taken up guitar by then -- and recorded while in college. After graduation, he traveled to Scotland to study at the School of Scottish Folk Studies.

He later ended up moving to New England, living in Rhode Island and then Somerville, Mass. While playing around Boston, he was spotted by members of the Irish band The Frames, who invited him to come back to Ireland with them. His songs sold particularly well in Ireland, he found.

"My time in Scotland and Ireland helped me understand that there are a lot of songs that have been around a lot longer than any of us, and there are a lot of songs that will be around long after we're gone," said Ritter.

Back in the U.S., Ritter built up a fan base with shows at music festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival. He started appearing on the same bills with folk legends like Joan Baez, who has since recorded a version of Ritter's song "Wings."

But Ritter didn't hit it big until "The Animal Years" in 2006, with help from King's pen. "The Beast in Its Tracks" is his seventh album.

Today, Ritter has established himself among the wave of folk-tinged and acoustic bands making huge inroads on the music charts. His song "Change of Time" was featured on the NBC show "Parenthood" and was used in promotional trailers for the Natalie Portman film "The Other Woman."

Although he sells enough albums to place high on the folk charts, Ritter doesn't really like the term "folk music."

"I think if you start calling something 'folk music' or 'traditional music,' you're putting a value on certain types of music compared to other music, or on people's tastes, and I don't think that's right," said Ritter.

"People say things like, 'Aren't you glad you play real music?' But it's all real music."

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

Twitter: RayRouthier

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(c)2013 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

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