Josh Ritter – Dances with wolves
Josh Ritter says his new album, The Animal Years, reflects his last few years living like a hunter-gatherer: Try to eat, try to sleep, drive to the next town, set up, play music, move on, try to eat again. There should be darkness in those nights upon nights being swept out the door after the last drunks at closing time — life without moorings, uprooted perennially from the pastoral, middle-class environs of his Moscow, Idaho, home. There is thoughtfulness, to be sure; he’s a thoughtful man. Still, he performs like he’s the happiest man in the world, happy to be alive. You want to know his secret, and he beams at the question.
“When I discovered I liked playing music, it was like a bolt from the blue,” Ritter says. “It was like the story about Saul on the road to Damascus, and the thing where the scales fall from your eyes. That’s such a perfect story for anybody who has suddenly discovered what they’re supposed to do. Once you discover that, I think it’s up to you.”
Fans of Lake Wobegon Days might detect here a Lutheran sense of calling. Ritter was, in fact, raised in the Lutheran church, and, although his conversational references range freely among Rabbi Hillel, Shakespeare, A.S. Bryatt, Pete Seeger, Thomas Pynchon, Leonard Cohen, Mark Twain and silent movies, Biblical characters and metaphors seem always near at hand.
His new album’s mesmerizing leadoff track, “Girl In The War”, for example, imagines a conversation between the apostles Peter and Paul. Peter’s anxiety about his girl in the war, whose eyes he describes lovingly as being “like champagne,” is met with Paul’s fatalistic exhortation that Peter, the Rock, needs to rock harder: “Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire.”
Peter despairs of any help from heaven; he says, “Now talking to God is like Laurel asking Hardy for a gun.” So he turns up the music and prays anyway, “and if they can’t find a way to help her, they can go to hell.”
Peter and Paul often put Ritter in mind of Laurel and Hardy. “Laurel is like Peter,” he suggests, “because he’s kind of fumbling, never does the right thing, always means well, always giving it his best shot. And Hardy, he’s the mean guy who knows what he’s doing.
“At the same time it’s funny, it’s also sad, because the two of them never get anything done. They’re always arguing, but then they’re friends at the end and always stick together. It’s a really complex relationship.”
So while Biblical references come easily to Ritter, it must be noted that they may not always be reverent. Moreover, unlike Martin Luther, Ritter is captivated by the magic and imagery of Catholicism. Its mysticism, in fact, led to one of several lucky breaks that have rewarded his years of hard work. Ritter’s song “Wings”, from his 2003 album Hello Starling, mystified Joan Baez into such thrall that she covered it on her 2003 release Dark Chords On A Big Guitar.
The song had been passed along to Baez by Ritter’s manager, Darius Zelkha. “He knew that I’d moved to Boston because I’d heard she got started there,” Ritter says, referring to his post-college years spent in Massachusetts before he moved back to his Idaho hometown. “I just like her vibe. She’s in it for the long haul, and I just look up to her for that.”
Ritter learned of Baez’s interest in “Wings” when she called him on his cell phone. “What a classy thing to do — to call up somebody out there who’s totally unknown and just out there working hard, hoping that things are going OK but not knowing,” he says. “I didn’t believe it was her. She asked to record that song and it was the first — other than the Frames thing and going to Ireland [more on that later] — that was the first time I ever felt like I could do this for a living. That really meant a lot to me.”
Of “Wings”, Ritter continued, “She told me, ‘It’s a weird, spooky song. I don’t know what the hell it means.'” He’s happy to explain…sort of. “There’s this place in northern Idaho called Catawba that was founded by a Jesuit missionary from Genoa. It’s the oldest building in Idaho, from the 1860s, and he just basically showed up there and he convinced the Indians — who knows how; they did all kinds of crazy stuff, those Jesuits — but they built this beautiful mission out in the woods at a time when really the only people who were out there were burnt-out miners from [the Gold Rush] or people hiding out from the Civil War or fur trappers or five or six of these Indian tribes.
“There was a picture on the wall of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Her heart just looked like a piece of fruit, like you could just bite into it. I wanted to have that in a song. Everything came out of that.”