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Songwriter is almost touching that star

This is the week that his dream could come true. It's not that his life is gloomy, but at 29, Ritchie Ritchison is closer than ever to his dream of becoming a successful country songwriter.

He has a song on the music charts: Fuel To The Fire, a Ken Mellons' tune he co-wrote with the heralded country newcomer. It's on NASCAR: Running Wide Open, an album of songs by various Nashville artists.

Each Friday, when Billboard magazine lands in the mailbox of his Pinellas Park home, Ritchison faithfully tracks what he hopes will be his big break. So far, the album has been on Billboard's list of top country albums for a little more than three months, peaking at No. 17.

While that's a good start, Ritchison says that if Sony Records decides to release his honky-tonk burner as a single, his fortunes could rise quickly.

"This is the biggest single event in my music career," he said. "You go to Nashville to try and pick the lock, and it's tough, but once you get a song cut, that's the key. The doors seem to open on their own."

Meanwhile, Ritchison is living out the music industry adage "Don't give up your day job" in the flooring department at the Home Depot store in St. Petersburg.

"It's been fun watching it week after week get higher on the charts," said Ritchison. "But this business is so fickle, so competitive, you can't take any success for granted."

Two years ago, Ritchison was engineering song demos part-time in producer Jerry Cupit's Nashville studio. Mellons, an entertainer at Opryland, often stopped in to work on his own songs in hopes of winning a recording contract.

During breaks in the recording sessions, Ritchison, Mellons and Cupit conjured up catchy lyrics that might fit into a country song format.

"Someone _ and I'm not sure who _ came up with the expression "adding fuel to the fire" and it just took off after that," recalled Ritchison. By the next evening they had finished the chorus and the last verse.

Mellons recorded Fuel To The Fire for inclusion on his debut album for Epic Records, but the song was dropped in favor of another track.

"When they were putting together the NASCAR album they called Jerry to see if he had anything he felt would fit, and he was happy to have that track," said Ritchison.

Although a Sony official said there are no plans to release Fuel to the Fire as a single, Mellons has performed it twice on national television, and the song frequently pops up in his concerts.

Ritchison has spent more than eight years pursuing a music career. From concert sound and lighting technician to musician to songwriter to record producer, he has tried his hand at nearly every aspect of the business.

"For most of my life I've delved into music," said Ritchison, who grew up in St. Petersburg. "Rock 'n' roll, blues, folk, jazz _ I talked to musicians, sound crews, asked them questions about the business, about recording and the technical side of it."

After his 1984 graduation from Northeast High School, he enrolled in Full Sail Center for the Recording Arts in Orlando. But Ritchison says his best education came from real working environments. He interned in California with Dwight Yokum's engineer, Dusty Wakeman, and did road sound and lighting with such artists as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson.

He invested time (and considerable capital) into a Nashville recording studio that failed, prompting him to return to St. Petersburg to get back on his feet. Music _ and songwriting _ remains a passion.

"Songwriting is craft that you develop," said Ritchison. "That's why the same writers keep getting all the hit songs. They learned the style. And one of the first things you learn is if you don't get the listener's attention in the first three lines, you might as well hang it up. You'll never get them."

Besides co-writing songs, Ritchison has penned more than 30 tunes on his own. Using his own demo studio, Ritchison has been creating tracks to send out in hopes that his lucky streak has just begun.

"This business is just like a game," he said. "I've learned the rules and I want to keep playing."