I’d like to make a bold prediction, dear Folio Weekly readers. Know how Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week? Well, Josh Ritter will be the next American singer-songwriter to pull off a similar feat. Yes, it might take 30 or 40 years. But over the last 15 years, Ritter has churned out eight full-lengths of eccentric, aphoristic, narratively astute folk rock. He’s written a historical novel infused with Biblical overtones. He’s been celebrated as one of America’s best living songwriters and showered with praise by none other than renowned wordsmith and workaholic Stephen King.
And Ritter’s not slowing down: He’s got another record nearly in the bag and another novel in nebulous stages — and earlier this summer, he copped a career-defining co-writing credit on Grateful Dead OG Bob Weir’s recent superb solo record. Unlike Dylan, of course, Ritter loves to talk about his work. About the necessity of letting old material evolve. About the incessant stream of words floating about in his head. About family, fears and the fecundity of small-town songwriting inspiration. About the responsibility shouldered by artists operating in the folk tradition (as Ritter has done ever since he custom-built his own American History Through Narrative Folk Music major at Oberlin College).
It’s enough to inspire anyone fascinated with words to just keep sitting down and writing ’em, expectations and anxieties and preconceived notions be damned. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Ritter recently told Folio Weekly, “so finding new ground requires a lot of work, a lot of trepidation and no small amount of banging my head against the wall. So when I get there, I’m still really excited.”
Folio Weekly: Your current tour balances support dates for Jason Isbell with headlining shows, like the one on Oct. 20 at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. Why the double-dipping?
Josh Ritter: It’s an opportunity to go out in front of a crowd every night. To keep on rocking. I don’t like days off. I like to play every night. I have an amazing band, and playing with Jason is such an honor that I really want to blow the doors off [when we open for him].
Is it refreshing to go on the road and not have to focus on a new record?
It is. A couple of years ago, I decided that if I wasn’t playing new songs, I was doing myself a disservice. So whenever I have something new that I’m excited about, I want to work it into a set. But I’m also a huge believer in not leaving your old stuff behind — you bring it along, let it develop. I’ve never tried to disassociate myself from my older music. I love playing it. So we never do anything at the expense of playing the songs that people come to see. I really believe in that. If you go to a restaurant and you have something amazing, you want to tell your friends and take them back to have that thing. You owe your audience that.
Your last two albums, The Beast in Its Tracks and Sermon on the Rocks, featured clear, cohesive themes. Does the new material you’re working on have that same sort of unified thrust?
It’s funny how themes come out of the record only at the end. When I’m writing, I’m going so fast and so hard that there’s no time to see anything emerge. But when you have 20 to 30 songs and you’re trying to decide what’s going to go on the record, suddenly things pop out at you that you can’t believe you didn’t see before. On the last record, I wrote so much about religion and small towns, and I was striving for a point of view that had more to do with women. I have a daughter, so I hope she takes lessons like that with her into life: Stand up for yourself and be a girl who takes no shit from anybody.
Your daughter and partner have traveled with you on the road, right?
They have, for the last three-and-a-half-years. But we’re starting to run into complex things with school schedules. They’re still heading out with me for about a week on this tour, though. And my daughter just graduated from a crib to a full-fledged bunk on the bus, so she’s definitely part of the touring party. Which is the best. When you travel with anybody who’s never been on the road, you see everything in a new way. And she’s a tiny kid, so the whole world is new to her anyway. She’s been all over, and I don’t know what effect that’s had on her. But she’s an adaptable kid who stands up for herself.
So much of your music is rooted in the specific small towns and landscapes Through which you traveled. Does America’s heartland still offer an endless well of information for you?
Well, we’re living in a surreal time. The small town is a microcosm of a larger place, where people are feeling left behind and making desperate choices. I’ve always been in touch with small towns and rural places, but the qualities within them have changed. So I look at them in a different way. It’s not better or worse, but I see things a little differently than I used to when I cast my roving eye around.