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Josh Ritter Documents America's Darker Days

Josh Ritter plays The Castle Theatre Friday night.
David McClister
Josh Ritter plays The Castle Theatre Friday night.

Josh Ritter is known worldwide as a talented songwriter. Matter of fact, Paste Magazine named him one of the 100 greatest living songwriters in 2006.

But ahead of his show at the Castle Theatre in Bloomington Friday night, Ritter tells WGLT he altered his normal approach to writing and recording for "Fever Breaks," the album he released in late April.

First, he hired Americana star Jason Isbell to produce the album, and used Isbell’s backing band, the 400 Unit, as his studio band. Though a number of relationship songs on “Fever Breaks” would sound right at home on his 2013 album “The Beast In It’s Tracks,” he also delves into political and social issues. It’s content he approaches gingerly.

“There are things about the song that if you are referencing things in a specific way, become dated super-fast and lost some of their power,” said Ritter. “Also, if it’s not done really well, political songwriting becomes an exercise in education, which is not something I want to do. I don’t know anything more than anyone else. What I think a good protest song does is it frames moral arguments but doesn’t answer them and allows it to be answered by the intelligence of the person listening to the song.”

"The world right now is in turmoil, and to write about it only requires that you look up and look around."

But Ritter said he couldn’t shake the news he was reading and seeing in the media. He said those events  taking shape in his mind began to gurgle a couple albums prior, and by the time he was writing for this album, a rising tide of dread and unease had come over him.

“It took a while for those things to coalesce and to realize that trying to be a writer now and look inward would be a mistake for me. The world right now is in turmoil, and to write about it only requires that you look up and look around. It’s my way of feeling I can contribute to the conversation. I get so frustrated with my inaction that this is one way I feel like I can help,” said Ritter.

I saw the children in the holding pens I saw the families ripped apart And though I try I cannot begin To know what it did inside their hearts There was a time when we held them close And weren't so cruel, low, and mean And we did good unto the least of those Or was it all some kind of dream? - “All Some Kind of Dream” from “Fever Breaks”

“And we did good unto the least of those” references the book of Matthew in the Christian Bible. Ritter chaffed a bit when asked if the line came from a personal religious perspective.

“I think there are some major, major distractions in our social commentary about things right now,” said Ritter, referring to religion and politics as being bedrocks people use to base their reality.

“I really believe when we do good toward people, we are not laying that decision to do good at the feet of god or country or political affiliation. When we are doing kind works to other humans and to those around us, the basis of our actions can be traced to whether we are doing good work for other people (and) has to do with whether we respect the humanity in everybody else,” said Ritter.

I saw my country in the hungry eyes Of a million refugees Between the rocks and the rising tide As they were tossed across the sea There was a time when we were them Just as now they all are we Was there an hour when we took them in? Or was it all some kind of dream? - “All Some Kind of Dream” from “Fever Breaks”

Some people compare the political upheaval today with the tumult of the 1960s and 70s, from which some now classic protest songs were penned. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” come immediately to mind. Since especially the 2016 election, it’s difficult not to read political meaning into the lyrics of new recordings. Some feel it is an artist’s responsibility to tackle that turmoil head-on. Ritter believes that responsibility is different for each artist, who must follow their own muse, be it political or otherwise.

"Every voice is important. Every person’s experience during this time is important, but one of the things I really believe is that art made in this time will have a touch of this time in it. If people have specific stories to be shared, it’s such an important time to do that. I’m tremendously lucky I have that platform to do that. I take it seriously and I try to do the right thing. But sometimes that means I have to wake up in the morning and write a cowboy song,” he laughed.

"And in this situation, there are moments I felt such fury, I turned to the one thing I really know how to do.”

Josh Ritter plays the Castle Theatre in Bloomington Friday night.

The WGLT interview with Josh Ritter.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.