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Josh Ritter digs the golden age of radio

By Brian Steinberg, June 2002

A picture of children journeying to their daily lessons on a school bus graces the cover of Josh Ritter's second album, "Golden Age of Radio," and if this snapshot evokes memories of childhood and the familiar, well, it should.

"I basically wrote the songs for the record when I was leaving Idaho to come out to the east coast to try and make a living as a musician," says Ritter, a gentlemanly 24-year-old who is starting to capture some notice with his songs both here and in Ireland as he has toured overseas a few times already. "On the trip out, I just started to think about, you know, about exactly what I was doing, which was leaving a place I really knew so well for a place I had never been."

The result is a roots/country/folk album Ritter calls a chronicle of being "in the middle of everything you know, but not really being anywhere."

Sounds sad, but Ritter has some reason to smile now. Critics are comparing the songs on "Radio" to the work of some of the best names in folk, like Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake.

Ruminative vocals tumble like water over the album's first song, "Come and Find Me," while a heartier sound beefs up nostalgic walks through adolescence like "Me & Jiggs." (Sample lyric: Sitting on the porch playing Townes Van Zandt play guitar to burn off the hours/Till we climb the fences at the edge of town and paint our names on the water towers")

A sensuous bass-and-drum groove on the album's title track might have some listeners pulling out their old Fleetwood Mac albums to compare with "Say That You Love Me."

In many cases, like on the title track and "Me & Jiggs," Ritter's voice sounds positively otherworldly, mature beyond its years - no mean feat for a person of his relative youth.

Citing the pop smarts of Fleetwood Mac, the sultry songwriting of Cohen and Drake, and a topic -- leaving home -- that has spurred a number of great albums and songs might be enough to give someone a big head, but Ritter is plainspoken and extremely polite and seems genuinely excited and awed by the reception that "Radio" has received since its debut in January on the small western Massachusetts label, Signature Sounds.

"It's fantastic," he says of the reaction. "I made a record kind of like in our basement for just about $1,000, just because I really wanted to make a record that I thought I might want to listen to down the line. From there, it has just been incredible."

Prior to his move to his new hometown -- Boston -- life may have seemed somewhat more sedate. Ritter grew up in a small town in Idaho, and spent his formative years -- 13 of them -- playing the violin, complete with lessons from Suzuki.

He would regularly ride to school on a bus for an hour and a half each day, wearing headphones and listening to Top 40 songs. (In retrospect, he says, "A little more Tom Waits on Top 40 radio would be good").

Trips with the family to see his grandparents in Oregon were aided by a tape of the Oak Ridge Boys, and Ritter says semi-jokingly that he'd like to play with them one day.

It was not until 1994, however, that Ritter's ears would fill with the sound of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash crooning "Girl From The North Country" off Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album. The notes changed his life, he says. "That was a huge thing for me. I heard some guys sing something that one of them had written. They were singing it imperfectly, and the guitar playing wasn't all that great, and they were just so off-key. At the same time, it was incredible because they were doing their own thing."

It was 1994, and Ritter was on the cusp of becoming a high school senior in the town of Moscow. He started to teach himself to play guitar on a five-string lute that his father owned. He purchased his first real guitar at Kmart and subsequently wrote 12 songs, which he put out on cassette.

When he went to study at Oberlin College in Ohio, he kept on playing. Studying in Scotland only brought more experience to the mix (in fact, the new album's leadoff tune, "Come and Find Me," was written in a dorm room in Edinburgh). When Ritter returned to Ohio, it was with a bevy of new influences -- Townes Van Zandt, Nick Drake -- in tow.

A debut album -- as well as a spot opening for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings -- soon followed. Which brings us nearly up to date in the present.

Ritter is already working on a new record. "We're just in the early stages of it. It's definitely in the works," he says. Don't expect the same degree of seriousness, however. "I think the record will be a little bit happier. It probably also won't deal with the theme of leaving, or if it is, it will deal with the theme of happy leaving."