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Turnpike Troubadour
by Sue Angell '99

Picture of Kdd and Kander
Photo by Al Fuchs
It is a bitterly cold night in January when Josh Ritter '99 arrives in Cleveland to open a concert by country music legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore at the Beachland Ballroom.

Tall and lanky, in a two-piece brown suit that he bought at Goodwill, Ritter slouches into the greenroom with a guitar that has seen hard use in recent years. So hard, in fact, that the soft-spoken troubadour has strummed a hole through its wood.

A native of Moscow, Idaho, this young singer-songwriter has been compared to such musical luminaries as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Townes Van Zandt, and he's been hailed in the American and Irish press as a "rising star." The September release of his third CD, Hello Starling, has critics applauding his "twangy, acoustic-based songwriting" and tagging him as "confident and full of hopeful promises." Given his swift and steady rise in popularity, what does this lyrical songwriter have to say about his career?

"I picked up the guitar kind of late in life. I don't even think I was looking to play, necessarily; instead, I wanted a way to express my thoughts. Writing songs and playing the guitar gave me a vehicle to do that."
Over a bottle of beer and a basket of chips in the Beachland's shabby basement greenroom, Ritter shares his passion for the craft of songwriting and his desire to define where he fits in the American folk tradition.

Ritter enrolled at Oberlin in 1994 with plans to follow in his parents' neuroscience footsteps. Back then music was merely a diversion. "I played the guitar for myself in high school, just messing around with music up in my room," he says. "I always figured I'd be a scientist who played the guitar as a hobby, but that would be as far as it went."

But an open-mic performance one night at the Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse changed music from his avocation to his aspiration. Ritter soon became a popular campus act; he even dropped his biology major to concentrate on music.

"Oberlin was a good place for me," he says. "I created an independent major that allowed me to do exactly what I wanted, and in a way that took existing musical traditions into consideration.

"It was important that I consider how my music would fit into the larger scheme of music in the United States," he adds. "My professors pushed me to work harder and look further than I would have done without their help."

Searching for a place to fit in led Ritter down some unusual paths. On campus, he worked with English Professor Phyllis Gorfain, studying American folklore, and with Professor of Ethnomusicology Roderic Knight, investigating the traditions that influenced American music through the years. Off campus, he traveled to Scotland and immersed himself in the study of religion and folklore at the University of Edinburgh.

"Josh made it clear from the beginning that he was well aware of what was going on in the folk scene because he was interested in being a part of that scene and contributing to its legacy," says Knight. "I may have been his advisor, but he certainly didn't need any advice!"

Ritter's final year at Oberlin culminated with the release of his self-titled CD and an on-campus performance for an audience of 500. It was then that he received a postcard from legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, urging him to "choose a place to be and dig in." Ritter picked Boston, knowing it had figured prominently in America's folk scene during the past 50 years. He moved to nearby Providence, Rhode Island, and launched his career.

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