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Josh Ritter talks Bob Dylan, the history of folk and his favorite bookstore

Published Nov. 9, 2011

Josh Ritter grew up in Moscow, Idaho, and the story goes he began writing music after hearing Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan's Girl from the North Country on his parents' copy of Nashville Skyline.

"Where we lived, we didn't have a lot of radio or diversity in music,'' he said. "So, I think when I did get into listening to albums like Nashville Skyline, it made that explosion, that realization of wanting to be involved with music, for me all the more powerful.''

Ritter, 35, attended Oberlin College in Ohio to study neuroscience, the profession of both his parents; however he later changed his major to the self-created "American History Through Narrative Folk Music." We recently spoke to the folk-pop singer-songwriter - who performs at the Straz Center on Nov. 14 (tickets are $28.50 and up; click here for details) - by phone from his home in Brooklyn.

Can you talk about that epiphany involving Bob Dylan's album?

Well, first, I think it wasn't so much a simple thing. It wasn't really about Bob Dylan. I certainly liked his song, Girl from the North Country, and it hooked me, but Johnny Cash really impressed me. What got to me the most was how they made it seem so deceptively simple.

I wanted to ask you about your major in college, American History Through Narrative Folk Music. What does that mean? When you created it, did you focus on just American folk music that goes back to 1776?

I went much farther back. I think for marketing purposes, we are led to believe that American folk history began in the '50s, but I was interested in the stuff way back because it didn't just start with a lot of these American guys. So I did things like study in Scotland, where I looked at music from thousands of years ago. I realized that things stay the same. It's just nice to know that the stories stay so similar, and that someone like me or one of my contemporaries are just kind of continuing an ongoing tradition.

What's on your nightstand?

The Big Book of Adventure Stories edited by Otto Penzler. It's got some daring stories by writers like Jack London, Alastair MacLean and O. Henry, and it's been fun.

Do you have a favorite genre when it comes to reading?

No, I really don't because I think we get slammed with so much stuff all the time, and everything is such a hype. We're living in an age with a new masterpiece everyday, so I think it's more important to protect your reading time. I like the way I go into a book store and something surprising pulls me to it.

Do you have a favorite bookstore?

I love The Word, a bookstore in Brooklyn. I spend a lot of time there.

-- Piper Castillo, tbt*