ROLE MODELS: Josh Ritter

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

William Least Heat-Moon changed my life. I’ve never met the man, but his 1983 book Blue Highways has been a close companion of mine for many tours and many, many miles. Often it is in my bag or being passed around the van or bus. When it is not physically present, its lyrical phrases embroider the scenery of many of the places in America that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit in my short time as a touring musician.

“With a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing sense that I lived in a foreign land, I set out on blue highways, in search of a place where change did not mean ruin-and where time and men and deeds connect.”

-William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon changed my life. I’ve never met the man, but his 1983 book Blue Highways has been a close companion of mine for many tours and many, many miles. Often it is in my bag or being passed around the van or bus. When it is not physically present, its lyrical phrases embroider the scenery of many of the places in America that I’ve been fortunate enough to visit in my short time as a touring musician.

In 1978, having lost his job and his wife on the same day, Heat-Moon, who is of Osage descent, decided upon a course of action. Outfitting his van and naming it “Ghost Dancing,” he undertook to travel America, to see who Americans were and what America was about while there was still something left of it. To do so, it was necessary to get off the interstates and to look for-and allow one self to find-the people and places which made one place on the map different from anywhere else. Along the way he visited rural Kentucky, Selma, Ala., a dusty trucker bar in New Mexico and, to my surprise, my hometown of Moscow, Idaho.

It’s odd that a book celebrating the minutiae of American geography and daily life should come into my hands in a foreign country, but as with many favorite books, “Men and deeds connect,” and the book actually fell off a bookshelf in front of me in Bratislava, Slovakia. I was in the middle of a particularly difficult tour (note to all musicians and songwriters beginning in the music biz:  Slovakia is a difficult place to make a living), and the day was mightily hot and dry. I stopped into a tiny, dusty little store and there it was.

The book exploded into my mind like ink poured into water, instantly coloring each interaction I had with people, with the landscapes around me, with my new life on the road as I was approaching it. Besides traveling the U.S. as a musician, I realized that, at that time, I was getting the chance to witness a portion of America’s continuous metamorphosis. In a was, I was offered the chance to see America in the same way Heat-Moon had seen it 20 years before-by van, by back road, by sunlight and moonlight, in all kinds of weather, but always witnessing the fabric that this nation continuously weaves in order to keep itself together.

Now, five years later, that is what I’ve tried to do. I’ve traveled many more thousands of miles around this country than Heat-Moon’s three month, 13,000 mile trek, but thanks to Blue Highways I’ve been able to look at its changing people and places through the lens that he introduced me to that day in Bratislava. I’ve seen the absurdist South Dakotan preoccupation with road signs. I’ve watched Mt. Shasta appear out of the dark blue of twilight as the sun came up. I’ve driven Wyoming at night. I’ve seen amateur boxing in Birmingham and listened on the radio as Pentecostal preachers spoke in tongues on the blue highway between Austin and Houston. I’ve drunk beer spiked with hot sauce and eaten calf fries (don’t ask) in Oklahoma. I’ve crushed pennies on railroad tracks in Tucson. I’ve driven a Northeast corridor where visiting Slovakians might assume that Dunkin’ Donuts was a religion and that Americans were its deeply fervent and fundamentalist disciples. I might have seen all these things anyway, but I certainly would not have been able to savor them in the same way without the beautiful vocabulary that Blue Highways gave me.

When we travel, Heat-Moon said, we should be like geese, flying with our necks outstretched. It’s not always easy or safe when your neck is out.  But you gotta get there somehow, and you might as well see something real while you’re at it.  For this I want to thank Mr. William Least Heat-Moon.


Josh Ritter

On the road near Hudson, Ohio


P.S.  And if you’re looking for a good meal near Louisville, Ky., you should try Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville. It’s on Route 60, right off of Veechdale Rd.  It’s a Blue Highways recommendation and 27 years later it was still great.

Ritter’s new album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, was released on August 21st via Sony Records.


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