Darkness, light and Josh Ritter

The Festy Experience kicks off this weekend in Nelson County. This year’s lineup was curated by the Infamous Stringdusters, and includes local acts like Trees on Fire, and Devon Sproule and Paul Curreri (who will play together), and national acts like Railroad Earth and Toubab Krewe. Most exciting for many folk lovers is the Idaho-born folk singer Josh Ritter. Ritter will be joined on stage with the Love Canon String Band—a group known to me as the guys who have played bluegrass covers of ’80s songs on a string of recent Wednesdays at The Southern. 

Josh Ritter plays at a new festival called the Festy Experience in Nelson County this weekend. He will be accompanied by the local bluegrass group Love Canon, which features Zach Hickman, Adam Larabee and Jesse Harper. 

When I spoke to Ritter over the phone, he had just returned from an extended tour and was cleaning his apartment in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. He doesn’t spend a lot of time there, since he’s usually on the road attending to a forever-snowballing fanbase. He has released six albums over the past decade, and his newest—So Runs the World Away released in May and named for a verse in Hamlet—is among his darkest, which belies Ritter’s affect, both on stage (where he’s effusive) and over the phone (upbeat, polite). 

Ritter does terrible things to his characters on So Runs the World Away. Why? “My big realization with this record was, what I needed to do with my music was to start treating characters the way that I like to see them treated in books. Something unexpected has to occur. It doesn’t always happen like a love song, that we hold hands and we go to the corner, and then the song is over.” He pointed to Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story, “Good Country People,” which starts as a love story: A woman with a fake leg is coaxed into a barn with the man who claims to love her. But in the end, he steals the woman’s fake leg and leaves her there, stranded.

“‘My Boyfriend’s Back,’” he said. “Now that’s a good song.”

In writing the record, Ritter was faced with writer’s block, which he remedied by mining the mythology of traditional American songs. “How do you continue moving forward? There’s an artistic progression, but I don’t think of it that way, because there’s no sense of where you’re ending up.” One song, “Folk Bloodbath,” ties three of the most famous deaths in the American songbook in a single cemetery: Leadbelly’s Louis Collins, Delia of the murder ballad “Delia’s Gone,” and the murderer Stagger Lee. 

Ritter’s dropped his normal backing band this weekend and will play a bluegrass-inspired set with Love Canon, which features Zach Hickman, Adam Larabee and Jesse Harper, whom Ritter met when they played Ritter’s brother’s wedding. The first time he saw them play, “I lost my mind for two hours that night. All I wanted to do was play with them, which is the mark of a good band: It should look like it’s as much fun as it is on stage.”

A joyful live show and command of the craft have garnered histrionic comparisons to Leonard Cohen, whom Ritter tells stories like, Bob Dylan, whom he writes like, and Paul Simon, whom he sings like. (He even looks a little like Tom Waits.) “It’s usually meant as a compliment, so I take it as a compliment. Sometimes it’s not, and I take it as a compliment too,” he says. “The only way to really judge whether somebody like me can stand up to it, is to give it 50 years and see if it still stands up. Why do people know about Jack London, but less about Robert Service? Who knows why? I don’t spend time thinking about it.”

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