Friends have been raving about singer-songwriter Josh Ritter for years, and I had him on my “listen to” list for far too long. Thankfully, that all ended in August when I traveled to Lyons, Colorado, for the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and finally got a proper earful.
Fast-forward a month later, when he released his ninth studio album, “Gathering.” The album is stunning, and every single review I’ve read on it has people tripping over themselves heaping on the praise. And why wouldn’t they? “Gathering” is a beautifully crafted album of sometimes hopeful, sometimes somber, sometimes foot-stompin’ songs.
It opens with the spiritual minute-long “Shaker Love Song (Leah)” and ends with the stark and dreamy “Strangers” that shuffles along like a slow waltz, with another 11 tunes in between. “When Will I Be Changed” features Bob Weir singing and playing guitar. “I been told I’d find the truth down in my bones/But I don’t know I don’t know/I can’t even seem to find my own road home/And I hope there is some truth down in my bones.” Zachariah Hickman’s organ and horns from Matt Douglas and Paul Rogers flow throughout the song that is one part devotional and one part classic Americana.
“Train Go By” is another favorite. It’s tender and forward-looking to a time when the guy figures out what to say to his sweetheart to make things right. “Never been so empty-handed/Nothing turning out as I planned it/She’s disappointed, I’m just mad/Love is patient/Love is kind.” “Gathering” also has a track on it called “Myrna Loy.” A quick search revealed that Loy was an actress who transitioned from silent films to talkies. It’s a slow, sleepy tune that repeats the phrase “in the darkness” and is something of a love letter to an era long gone by. A beautiful song if ever there was one.
Here’s a live, version of “Dreams”
But the one that struck me the most on “Gathering” is “Dreams.” For just under six and a half minutes, Ritter paints a dark, hypnotic portrait. “I went to the doctor who sent me to the doctor/Who sent me to a doctor who sent me to a room/And that’s where I waited with the world ending around me/And the voices in my head jangling round my head.” A sinister-sounding piano is woven into the song, making it all the more potent. Ritter, 41, is from Moscow, Idaho, and has called Brooklyn, New York home for several years. After three weeks or so of total immersion into “Gathering,” just before his show at the State Theatre on Saturday, I took the next logical step: I got Ritter on the phone.
You’ve graduated from playing Port City Music Hall to the much larger State Theatre here in Portland. Has that been a trend for you in other cities and towns?
It changes in every spot. It’s so interesting because of the vagueries of the whole music business sort of thing. Touring doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to records anymore, which is really a good thing because it’s how it’s always been for me. I’ve always been on the road ,so it’s nice to not have to unleash when I have a record out. But it is great to be playing some of these nice, swanky places. People still throw beer at me, but it’s nicer beer.
Congratulations on “Gathering.” People are very excited about it. Do you read reviews?
I totally do. All it is, in the end, I’m working really hard to do what I think feels right for the record. It’s nice and fulfilling when it seems the message has come through, and I’ve managed to say what I wanted to say, and it came across. I do think that is really fulfilling.
You worked with Bob Weir on his album “Blue Mountain” that came out last year, and now he’s on your new one. How did you two first meet?
I met him through my amazing guitar player Josh Kaufman. Josh has worked with him on a bunch of stuff, and Bob was telling him we wanted to make this cowboy record, and I was in an airport, and I begged him to (let me) write some lyrics, so I wrote some on the plane, and Bob liked them enough that we’re still working together.
Were you a Grateful Dead fan? Were you familiar with Weir’s work?
Growing up in rural northern Idaho I had very little experience with The Grateful Dead. But you can’t be a musician without picking up the water that those guys are in. They’re everywhere. Bob’s whole philosophy was so important to me for recording the record. His whole open-mindedness about everything that he was working on, it really influenced me when it came time for me to do my thing.
The song “Dreams” has so much going on in it. Is there anything you can tell me about it?
I’m super proud of it. There’s a point with songs where they aren’t a description of something, they are the thing. We all wake up sometimes feeling dark and having a darkness, and I feel like that sort of weird, strange, hallucinogenic, time slowed down that I was trying to describe has felt ever more pronounced since the election of he who will not be named. I think there was an amount of tumult and uncertainty and confusion and anger, a mixture of all these things that I really wanted to get into and write about, and I thought that this person who was clearly having trouble felt like a good description of the moment.
You wrote “Dreams” after the election?
Yes. But a lot of the record I wrote before it. So much of the record turned out to be about storms and about what was going on. With the last record too, I was really trying to write a record that had the moment that we were in. With folk music and Americana, there is a tendency to be nostalgic, and I kind of look at the nostalgia, and it is beautiful, but I do have a jaundiced side towards that sometimes, especially when trying to write songs that feel relevant to the moment.
Speaking of nostalgia, I had to look up who Myrna Loy was. How did you discover who she was and what got you interested in her story?
I saw her in “The Thin Man” with William Powell. I don’t know a lot about the movies, but I do feel like I would recognize if there was this person that was so good, so funny and so smart and cool. So I looked her up, and Myrna Loy, cool name and she’s from Montana; that’s amazing. There was something about her that had this weird Tom Sawyer feeling of like rascally America. I had been to Helena where she was from and a lot of Helena has always struck me as being a very mystical, mythical place at the edge of the mountains, a very special, potent place to think about while writing, and I wasn’t trying to edit anything, I just thought, well, this seems like a really fun, surrealistic trek that I can go on. I wrote a ton and then edited it away.
You’re so smiley and look so peaceful when you’re playing. Where you go to in your head when you’re performing?
In my mind, there’s a story in every line, and singing them is like a chance to relive the story. I think an example would be “Cry Softly.” It has lines about getting broken up with in all these places: Carlsbad, El Paso and Tempe, and I just like the fact that this story was contained within the boundaries of these Southwestern towns. It doesn’t mean anything, but it does make an extra little story, and those little stories are kind of where I go when I’m singing. The lyrics are almost like muscle memory, but the story is fresh and new every time.
You have a healthy discography. Do you change up your set list from town to town?
I have well over a hundred songs recorded, and that’s really fantastic, but it makes choosing set lists all the more like running around with my head cut off. There’s so many directions I want to go in, and I think from night to night they change, and I want to bring out certain elements of the band. But the most important thing I think now, after 20 years of doing this, is that it stays interesting on stage for us. If we’re interested and engaged, then I feel like that’s the best place to start and end a show with this commonality on stage. That’s what I want to give. I want us to all to be a whole bunch of people in a room together feeling something special. I feel like, right now, these days, with everything going on, being strangers in a room with other people and then partaking in something, whether you’re on the stage or in the audience, we’re really lucky that we get to do that, and we’re really doing something important, I feel.
with Good Old War
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28. State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland, $25 in advance, $30 day of show. statetheatreportland.com