Most contemporary artists shy away from labels designed to market and promote their music, viewing them as stylistically restrictive. Josh Ritter is not among them. It’s just that he has come up with his own label, and it’s rather specific – messianic oracular honky-tonk.
To comprehend that tag and Ritter’s need for it, one had to start with other labels. After 2013’s stripped down, primarily acoustic The Beast In Its Tracks, a record written in the aftermath of his divorce from songsmith Dawn Landes, Ritter decided to return to the outside world of inspiration that gave his early recordings comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan for their removal from direct, auto-biographical lyrics. But Ritter also amped up the groove along with the scope of his songs. When he was done, he was surprised at the amount of religious imagery the resulting music contained. Hence, a genre of his devising was born.
“When you’re writing, you never really get a chance to think about the themes of the record, and I think that’s good,” said Ritter, one of the featured artists at this weekend’s Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. “It’s always good to be writing in the dark because I never want to write towards a goal.
“As I was wrapping up the record, I started to notice all this strange American imagery – kind of mystical but very earthy, very feet-of-clay stuff about how people we know match up against the expectations we’re supposed to live up to in religion and just about how those things cause friction. For that reason, I thought the rambunctiousness of the music and the rambunctiousness of the statements needed a real flesh-and-blood term. Messianic oracular honky tonk just sounded like such a fun way of thinking about music.”
More than the label itself, Ritter said, came a need. With The Beast In Its Tracks drawing the emotional intent of his music unexpectedly inward, he felt a need for expansion. Being autobiographical, it seemed, did not suit him.
“One of my pet peeves has always been autobiographic information. I don’t care for it. I don’t care for songs that are just about me, me, me. I’ve always stayed away from that. The Beast In Its Tracks was an impossibility. I was writing about a divorce. I was cataloging it and dissecting it myself. It felt like it was an important thing to get down. It was a huge life experience that was important for me to look at from all angles to see what it was. The Beast In Its Tracks was about divorce and everything that came after.
“That having been done, I definitely felt like now was the time for me to get back to my outward looking writing, about writing that isn’t necessarily about me. It’s about other things. It was about a girl in a small town who is trying to make an awful decision or a tent preacher working his way across Ohio. These songs are definitely outward looking just because I felt like I had already allowed myself a pass to do a record about myself.”
Ritter’s writing hasn’t been limited to music, either. The Idaho native’s 2011 novel Bright’s Passage became a New York Times best-seller. It also renewed his appreciation for concise narrative storytelling that is essential to songwriting.
“It gave me respect for all forms of writing as well as a deeper respect for my own songwriting. I’ve always been a voracious editor. Nothing doesn’t get polished down. I believe in the idea being good enough for getting all you can get out it. When you’re writing a book, it’s still about being concise, about saying exactly what you want to say and saying no more.
“That’s also what is so attractive about songwriting, although the performance isn’t there when a person sits with a book and reads in a room. That’s a much lonelier life, I feel.
At the end of the day, the difference between the two is that with songwriting, I can go onstage and get a bunch of applause.”
Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform at 8 p.m. July 9 for the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. Tickets are $65 for weekend admission. Call 888-810-2063 or go to mastermusiciansfestival.org.