For a decade, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, 33, endured the comparisons to Dylan and Springsteen with his wide, ever-present smile and an aw-shucks politeness: "Of course it's a compliment, but I know I'm neither of those guys. What they've done is unique."
Today, Ritter is still polite, and that wide smile has become his trademark. But a six-album body of critically acclaimed work has also earned him the right to say, "Those comparisons take away from what I do."
And what does he do? Ritter crafts intricate but never overstuffed songs from the "found objects" of life: love and God and sex and freight trains whose whistles blow in the night. Ritter's razor-sharp writing and wide peripheral vision still invite comparisons to Dylan and Springsteen (and Leonard Cohen and Townes van Zandt). But his new release, So Runs the World Away, owes more to Flannery O'Connor and William Shakespeare and Robert Frost.
"My inspirations are not primarily musical," he told me. He admires O'Connor's ability to "tell great and really funny stories" that have spiritual depth without being preachy. Frost, he said, "wrote great poetry that was also down-to-earth. And he wasn't afraid to rhyme." Ritter's literary confidence is such that he borrows the album title So Runs the World Away from a line in Hamlet, and the album was released in Ireland-where Ritter saw early success-on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday.
Ritter fans know religion is often just below the surface of his songs-and sometimes on the surface. "I was raised Lutheran," he said. "Hymns were formative in my musical development. Listening to Bach, singing hymns for an hour. I was learning from the best of the best. That's how I learned to write a quatrain."
But Ritter admits that today, "I'm an agnostic. I have lots of questions. My songs are sometimes my attempts to answer those questions. Mostly, though, they're expressions of uncertainty. My songs don't answer questions, but they do ask questions, hopefully some of the right questions."
For all that, "I've never been a tortured artist," he said. Ask fans to describe a live Ritter performance, and they'll mention that ever-present smile. The word joyful often crops up. "It's an amazing thing to get to do what I do," he said. "To play music for people who appreciate what you're doing-that makes it easy to be happy."
Adding to the happiness: He's newly married to musician Dawn Landes, a sometime member of the indie-folk-rock band Hem. She is also his opening act on the current "So Runs the World Away" tour.
Ritter, from rural Idaho, now lives in Brooklyn when he's not on the road. "I never thought I'd live in such a big city," he admits. As an antidote to urban life, and to challenge his agnosticism, Ritter reads neo-agrarian and communitarian writer Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton. Ritter is following in the footsteps of these genre-crossing literary heroes by crossing genres himself: His first novel is due out next year.
Ritter knows that some of the strands of his life seem contradictory. One of the few criticisms of So Runs the World Away has been that it is a departure from his earlier work. Ritter says that it's a deeper dive into ideas that have always been important to him. He admits, but doesn't apologize for, the irony and paradox. As Ritter puts it: "The artist lives in the in-between spots. The doubt in-between the things you think you know. That's where art is made. That's where the truth is found."
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