Twenty years into his career, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has played more than his share of music festivals. But when he headlines the Green River Festival Friday night, this show will not be just another festival gig.
For Ritter, whom music critics frequently cite as one of the finest singer-songwriters working today, playing the Green River Festival is a homecoming of sorts.
The Idaho-born singer, who now resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and two daughters, launched his career here in western Massachusetts, playing gigs at various local venues and releasing his first two albums on the Northampton-based Signature Sounds record label. (In addition to the record label, Signature Sounds also produces concerts including the Green River Festival.)
Ritter is currently touring in support of his ninth album, “The Gathering,” a diverse collection of songs that he described as being “a record of joy and sadness and laughter and lightning.”
This show will mark Ritter’s fourth time playing the Green River Festival, and he is looking forward to it as much now as he did when he first played there in 2001, which was during the very early days of his career.
“I remember that time as being very full of auspiciousness,” Ritter said in a recent phone interview. “I had not played very many festivals at that point and I think Green River was one of my first, so that was special. Over time, I have developed opinions about all types of shows and I always associate festivals with a lot of fun, and I think that’s because Green River cemented that idea in my head. And it’s so great to see it grow so much, and to be a part of that is amazing.”
After graduating from Oberlin College, Ritter moved to Boston to try and make it as a singer-songwriter. He frequently played in western Massachusetts at venues like the now defunct Fire & Water in Northampton.
“I played as many shows in the area as I possibly could. I remember driving home to Boston, trying to get home before the birds started chirping so I could get to my temp job,” he said.
A major career turning point came when he was signed to Signature Sounds.
“I had just got out of college and was playing at the Folk Alliance, and I was sleeping on Stephen Kellogg’s motel room floor because I didn’t have a place to stay. I met Flora (publicist at Signature Sounds) there and later met Jim Olsen,” he said.
Ritter gave Olsen a copy of an album he had made on his own called “The Golden Age of Radio.” Olsen later re-issued it on Signature Sounds.
“I’m so lucky that Jim gave it a listen,” Ritter recalled. “If it wasn’t for Jim Olsen, I wouldn’t have the career I have today.”
The label also released Ritter’s 2003 album, “Hello Starling.” These albums started getting national attention with critics rolling out Bob Dylan comparisons and praising Ritter’s literate, poetic writing style. The attention landed him a deal with V2 records which, in 2006, released his breakthrough album “The Animal Years.” This past April, Paste magazine released a list of the best independent folk albums. “The Animal Years,” hit No. 11 on the list, with the magazine calling the album “a masterpiece.”
Since that time, Ritter has teamed up with his Royal City Band to release five more albums. With each one, he has further developed his talents and ambitions, creating a catalog of work that is marked by his literate narratives and masterful use of imagery. And while he ultimately stepped out of the shadow of the Dylan comparisons, when it came time to make “The Gathering,” he found that he had another shadow hanging over him. Ritter said that he felt tired of living in the shadow of his earlier self, and when it came to write new material, he needed to be freed from his own and others’ expectations.
“I feel if you are an artist who is working constantly, you have to create your own road and you can’t really stand around for too long. I get charged up when I feel like I’m not getting where I want to go in my writing,” he said. “If I feel like I’m not creating new ground for myself, that really lights a fire under me. That sort of dissatisfaction is what keeps me going. I feel that being dissatisfied is important. You gotta keep on moving, you gotta keep your own shadow behind you.”
And he does just that on “The Gathering,” dabbling in everything from gospel to old rock and writing songs full of compelling characters grappling with a myriad of challenging emotions.
Ritter’s recent work with Bob Weir also provided him with a creative boost that factored into the making of “The Gathering.” Ritter wrote the material to Weir’s 2016 solo album, “Blue Mountain,” including a couple of co-writes with the Grateful Dead guitarist. Weir returned the favor through the duet “When Will I Be Changed” on “The Gathering.”
“Working with Bob came at a time that I think was truly super important to me. When I got the chance to work with him, it was the chance to work with someone who had done everything,” Ritter said. “His music is really in the American water and I got the chance to see him continue to be so open-minded. It was really amazing and inspiring to see somebody take a song and follow it where it might go and let it be what it was.”
Ritter, who throughout our conversation stressed how lucky he is to be able to do what he does for a living, will launch the current leg of “The Gathering” tour Friday night at the Green River Festival. If you’ve seen him perform before, you know that Ritter always has a good time when he’s onstage.
“I’m just thrilled to be playing the Green River Festival,” he emphasized. “We are all really excited. It’s going to be a rockin’ show and we are going to have a great time.”
There are some updates on the Green River Festival to pass on. Weekend passes and Saturday only tickets are sold out. Parking passes for Saturday are also sold out. Tickets are still available for Friday night and Sunday, and can be purchased at greenriverfestival.com or at the gate. Admission is free for children ages 10 and under, and on Friday night only, for ages 19 and under. There’s also a great app available with schedules and band information available to download.
Tickets are still available for a Green River Festival kick-off concert at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, 289 Main St. in Greenfield, Thursday night at 8 p.m. The show will feature Shelburne Falls native, singer-songwriter Seth Glier. He will be joined by the soulful sounds of The Mary Jane Jones from Northampton. Tickets can be purchased in advance at hawksandreed.com or at the door. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.
Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.