May 2007, I was in Philadelphia for the very first time attending the NonComm radio convention. I had just launched Jenni Finlay Promotions and James McMurtry was showcasing. Apparently American Songwriter was one of the big sponsors that year, because every time I’d turn the corner, this guy Josh Ritter’s brooding face would be staring back at me – 6 feet tall – from the magazine’s larger than life cover. I’d not heard of him before, but he was all the buzz at the convention that year. He was performing his debut showcase at some unheard of hour of the morning on the Saturday of the conference. I didn’t make it. And it’s entirely James’ fault. The night before, we hid from conference-goers in some out of the way cafe where he told me tale after tale about his hunting adventures…and introduced me to Dolcetto wine (still my favorite red). If Ritter is as good as that big cover story say his is, I’ll have another opportunity to catch him, was my thought at the time.
Years later, I found out Brian T. Atkinson wrote that cover story. He said Ritter was not just a good interview but a great guy:
“I flew into Chicago earlier that morning for a whirlwind twelve-hour trip on my first magazine cover story assignment. American Songwriter sent me to hang out with this guy Josh Ritter for the day and listen to mixes of The Animal Years with his producer Brian Deck. Just us three. They played song after song and each one – “Girl in the War,” “Good Man,” “Monster Ballads,” the whole way through the epic “Thin Blue Line” – was better than the last. “What do you think?” Ritters eyes suggested after every other song. I think I said something like, “Pretty cool, man.” Either way, I didn’t let on that I was discovering my favorite new songwriter that day. We walked around the city for a few hours that afternoon talking and doing photo shoots and every time we stopped just to check out music at Reckless Records, sit on a bench to shoot the breeze about nothing to do with his music or my assignment or grab a coffee the conversations were more relaxed. He was a cool dude and a fun hang and we hit it off as much as anyone can in a situation set up like that. At the end of the day, Josh walked me to the L stop where I was grabbing a train back to the airport. Before I could reach into my pocket for money, his eyes lit up and he pulled a day-pass train ticket out of his. “Here, man, take this. Have a safe trip.” I still had that ticket in my pocket six years and a thousand interviews later when he jumped out of a taxi at Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas and rushed toward the door for his in-store show. We looked at each other and I figured I’d just be another face in the crowd at that point. Instead, he grinned that big smile and came over and gave me a bear hug. “Brian, man, how’s it been going?” he said. I didn’t even get a chance to respond before he was headed toward the stage. “
Ritter is probably Brian’s favorite songwriter. Well – live songwriter (Townes still takes the cake for all-time favorite). Since the cover story, he’s interviewed him dozens of times – actually once for his Townes Van Zandt book – and has followed him throughout the course of his career. He even named The Beast in it’s Tracks the best record of 2013 in CMT Edge the minute he heard it.
Flash forward to this year. Brian’s birthday is coming up and Ritter playing Austin. Easy Peasy birthday gift for my best friend and business partner. I buy two tickets even though I’m not sure how much fun I’ll really have. I mean, I like his music and all, but I’ve been in the music business all my life and don’t really go see live shows for a good time. I’m always working them. I was practically born and bred to notice every detail and nuance and potential problem. Even when I’m not working the show, I feel like the twelfth man ready to jump into stage manage or change out a string when one pops.
Either way, we get to the show. I’m in my normal headspace but play along as Brian rushes us toward the soundboard (the best spot in the house if you’re looking for the best sound). It’s showtime. I’m studying the “spiderweb” lights because a couple of days ago, James and I were marveling at the fact that on this next leg of the Jason Isbell tour, the McMurtry band get their own lighting designer. We were wondering what colors would shine best (I suggested indigos since on the color wheel, I figure James to be an “Autumn”).
Shaking my head clear of my work brain, I look at Brian’s face: He’s clearly having the best time ever, a damn near giddy fan totally lost in the music. It’s a revelation. He’s normally as professionally jaded as I am, a music writer trained to analyze all the pros and cons in the shows and songs (I always am fascinated at how seasoned music writers can write clearly in the pitch black darkness of a venue, standing with one shoulder against the wall and a beer can wedged under their arm). As I watch, my brain starts slowing down. For the first time ever, I allow myself to melt into the music and just become a part of the show as well. The scene’s beautiful and something I’ve never seen: Everyone around me sways and digs every note, every word.
“This is my favorite song,” he says about 7 times. When I call him on it, he quickly corrects himself: “my favorite off THAT record. It’s track 7.”
Of course, 10:00 comes along – obligatory smoke time for Brian. Even though his very favorite songwriter is on stage and could possibly play HIS FAVORITE SONG (again), Brian has a daily ritual he must stick to. Creature of habit, he never wavers. So off he goes, leaving me in charge of writing down the next title on his notepad for his archives. Like I said, I like Josh Ritter, but I’m not well versed (pun intended) in his material. I try to figure out what the title could possibly be: “Albatross…?” “What Katie done, What Katie did….?” “He’s going to sign a little bit…?”
“Ah man!” Brian exclaims, “MONSTER BALLADS IS MY FAVORITE SONG!!” Ah. Murphy’s Law wins again.
People go to shows for fun on nights off. Holidays. Birthdays. People go to shows for no other reason than they love the music. Last night, no one had more fun than Ritter himself. He smiled at each song’s beginning and ending and several times between.
After missing him in Philadelphia, the first time I finally experienced a Ritter show was at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville during the Americana Music Fest. At Brian’s insistence, our apprentice Mandy Brown and I tagged along with him and snuggled in-between shoulder-to-shoulder music fans. We were amazed by Brian – usually way too cool and collected began conducting – literally, bouncing his hands in the air like a symphony conductor from the back of the room – and the entire room bobbed along in perfect time. He has that same expression on his face this time. Josh Ritter will never get old.
Four years ago at Folk Alliance, Curtis McMurtry made his debut official showcase performance in Kansas City. It was a powerful show and I was so proud of him (he was my first intern when he was 17 and watching him develop as a kick-ass songwriter and performer makes me feel like a beaming mama bear). Before Brian took off to come home to Austin and reality, he gave Curtis a faded and wrinkled day-pass train ticket he’d kept in his wallet all these year. The metro ticket Josh Ritter handed to him. “Pretty cool, man.”