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Interview: Josh Ritter hits life's right notes

Josh Ritter, performing with Jason Isbell at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Credit: Laura Wilson.

Josh Ritter, performing with Jason Isbell at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Credit: Laura Wilson.

Josh Ritter's folksy, soulful, literate brand of alternative Americana doesn't sound like music that always has a home on country radio. But that doesn't mean it'll never happen.

"There's a time for us where things come around, and maybe people start paying attention to the some of the stuff that has a little less shine," he said in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn.

Not that he's up nights waiting.

"I support my family," he said. "I really love what I do. I'm able to record with abandon. My artistic life doesn't need to get bigger. I'm right now, personally, in my own way, at the top of my game."

That's saying something for a singer-songwriter often compared to Bob Dylan. Over eight studio albums and numerous EPs and singles, the Idaho native has carved out a strong following for his music, and the ability to branch out into other fields. He's written a best-selling novel, Bright's Passage (which Stephen King praised for its "compressed lyricism" and "tasty language"), and this year his songs scored the John Krasinski indie film The Hollars, featuring, among others, Anna Kendrick and Josh Groban.

Ritter mostly plays theaters these days, including a gig with Grammy-winning songsmith Jason Isbell on Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Before the show, Ritter — who turns 40 two days after playing Clearwater — talked about playing with legends and his evolving career.

How'd you hook up with Jason Isbell? Do you guys go back, or was this an arranged marriage?

We go back. We've swum in the same waters for a while, although I think we're excited to get to know each other better. I've always admired Jason. He's so talented, and such a good person, and I'm so happy for everything that's going on for him right now.

He's not exactly a mainstream country act, but have you ever thought about trying to get a bigger foothold in Nashville?

Oh, of course, and more and more these days. I'm always looking for more challenges. One of the big ones I've been doing recently is writing a record of cowboy songs with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead. That was a foray into that kind of co-writing. I'm forever interested in that kind of stuff.

Did you know Bob for a while?

I didn't know Bob. But the Grateful Dead are in the water of American music, and so I was familiar, and no small amount of intimidated. Josh Kaufman, who's in my band, knows Bob well, and Bob told him he wanted to make this cowboy record, and when Josh told me, I was like, 'Please let me write a few songs, and you can show them to Bob. This is a dream.'

Could you ever see yourself touring with a veteran act like that, not unlike what John Mayer's doing with Dead and Company?

Oh, I think I would really love that. It's always not only inspiring to play with your heroes, but a learning experience as well. It's cool to see stuff at that level, and you can always learn something. Just to be around that sort of legacy is so inspiring.

How was The Hollars? Did you find it creatively satisfying to score a film?

I've known Krasinski for several years now, and so when he called me about working on this film, which was such a big part of his life and his heart, it was a total honor, because that's his baby. And while most of the songs had already been recorded and were part of my canon, that they should find their way into somebody else's own artistic vision was such a compliment. I thought he paid them such respect and treated them so well.

Did you try to convince him to have Josh Groban sing one of your songs?

(laughs) That would be awesome. I would love that.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Jason Isbell and Josh Ritter

The singer-songwriters perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 N McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater. $43.25 and up. (727) 791-7400, rutheckerdhall.com.

Interview: Josh Ritter hits life's right notes 10/17/16 [Last modified: Sunday, October 16, 2016 3:37pm]
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