The one notable exception is “Good Man,” a four-minute burst of pure joy that Deck has dressed in shiny dancing shoes. It’s a love song refreshingly confident and amazingly devoid of cliché Babe, we both have dry spells/Hard times in bad lands,” Ritter sings. “I’m a good man for you/I’m a good man.” The claim is entirely free of bravado, as simple and beautiful as it sounds.
“I’d written love songs in the past, and it kind of hit me that all those songs were about me not being quite good enough,” he says. “I thought maybe it was time to step to the plate and give it my best shot.”
Indeed, he did. The payoff is immense. The Animal Years is a career-making album, the one which all future efforts will be measured against. It’s Ritter’s Joshua Tree, a restless collection that comes from the heart, circles the globe and returns home that much wiser” if not more than a little scarred. The album is, to be sure, one of the most important albums of 2006.
If we’re to judge a man by the company he keeps, then Josh Ritter’s in very good standing. He counts Joan Baez among his friends. In fact, in 2003 the high priestess of ’60s folk music paid Ritter the highest compliment by including his “Wings,” originally from Hello Starling, on her Big Chords on a Dark Guitar. As if hinting at a cosmic connection, both albums were released on the same day.
“I have nothing bad to say about that boy,” Baez says. “Some of his songs are very good and others are just superb. But what I’m most impressed by is watching him perform. He’s the only other performer other than myself that I’ve ever seen step out from the microphone and do a whole song. He’s very charismatic.
“You’re not supposed to have favorites, but over the 15 years I’ve had opening acts – some of them totally unknown, some of them partially known – he’s one of my absolute favorites. [When we toured together], I would go sit with him at dinner because I knew that it would be fun. He has a great sense of humor, and he’s natural. This is not a natural business. You meet a lot of folks with complexes, but Josh doesn’t seem to have a wall up between you and him, and it doesn’t seem to threaten him.’
The French writer Honore de Balzac once said, “As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move, similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle.” It’s a telling sign, then, that a paper cup – filled with regular coffee, cappuccino, whatever – fits as naturally, and regularly, in Ritter’s right hand as does a six-shooter in a cowboy’s steady grip.
Anonymous as a bike courier here in the Windy City, Ritter cordially makes small talk with the barista who’s fixing our drinks at Filter. He laughs easily. When the cappuccinos hit the counter, he pulls out a couple crumpled bills and offers to pay. Then he insists on it. Walking out the front door and onto the street, Ritter notices three smartly dressed men approaching the coffee shop. He quickly reaches back, grabs the door and holds it open a few seconds until they pass through. Manners, it turns out, are nonnegotiable.
That’s small town upbringing in action, folks. Ritter learned his values in Moscow, a tiny but vibrant two-college hamlet in northwest Idaho. Over time, Oberlin University and then the rich music scene in Boston drew him progressively closer to the Atlantic, but Ritter’s rural roots run deep. Most songwriters riding a wave as big as The Animal Years would be driving a U-Haul toward Los Angeles or New York City for their next move. The big time, baby.
Not Ritter. He just bought a house back home, and somehow, it makes perfect sense. “For Idaho, Moscow’s a real hotbed of liberalism,” he says. “It’s in the middle of the wheat farming area – peas and lentils. I never feel bad about being back there. I just wanted to have a place that when I’m away, I’m really away – hanging on my own. That’s the place that spoke to me the most.”
Maybe it’s this genuineness that lends such improbable depth and honesty to the songs. Ritter’s unwavering integrity might not thrust his tunes into the world of mainstream radio, but it captured the attention of Almost Famous screenwriter Cameron Crowe. “Josh has been quietly building a body of work destined to be as good as the best of them,” Crowe says. “He owns any room where his songs are played. He’s utterly himself, and somehow timelessly universal.”