Because I’ve been naughty and haven’t posted anything in a while. And because it’s been even longer since I posted any Josh Ritter.
I could’ve chosen one of the nice acoustic performance clips of this song, but I really wanted y’all to hear the opening, which is nothing technically speaking but sets the emotional tone for this song. Boom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. You know from the first beat that nothing good is going to happen in this song. 1,600 people put out of work by the closing of the dairy plant. A former worker develops a drinking problem. One son loses his faith in god. The other, simply at loose ends, is the narrator. The crime at the heart of the song–besides the systematic disenfranchisement of the working class by corporate greed–is unclear. Did the father and brother rob the liquor store out in Putney? Were they simply innocent bystanders? Who ended up dead? Who were the police looking for? What did they tell the other son who, when he opened the front door to them, “thought I was crying, it was something in my eye”? Why wasn’t he crying? Was he the one that committed the crime?
You know what I’m gonna say here. That the answers to these questions aren’t important. And they aren’t. But I’d still kind of like to know exactly what went down. It nags at me, “Like a thorn in the paw, disregard for the law, disappointment to the lord on high.” It would help to be able to understand what happened in the chaos of the bridge. It wouldn’t help to understand the current chaos of the world, but it might make me feel a little better to have this one thing make sense.
“Henrietta, Indiana” showcases Ritter’s storytelling abilities beautifully. It’s one of the aspects of his songwriting I appreciate most, although I had to acquire a taste for this song, kind of like the father acquired “a taste for the hard stuff.” It’s also reminiscent of the even less clear “Harrisburg” (you get a live clip for this one, complete with a “Wicked Game” interval that almost makes me want to listen to that damn song again; you’re welcome). There is something fundamentally wrong in both these songs. A restlessness, an anger, a dread. In “Henrietta, Indiana” it literally thrums throughout–in this case in the steady drumbeat that carries the song from first note to last. I had to learn to like “Henrietta” because it isn’t the sweet, soulful type of music that drew me to Ritter in the first place. It’s the kind of song that doesn’t stir the heart, but instead asks questions of your soul. Just how far are you willing to go to escape a life you never planned on having? What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness? Is it really living if all you do is survive? Ritter leaves that up to his characters, but you get the feeling they’re not too happy with the answers they’ve come up with. Which give you the listener the chance to come with better ones for yourself.
I freely admit that I am currently just the tiniest bit obsessed with Josh Ritter. Maybe it’s because the music is so damn good. Maybe it’s because he seems so freakin’ happy when he’s onstage. Joyful, really, and who couldn’t use a little more joy in their lives?
I was actually having a little trouble finding a Ritter song I hadn’t posted on the jukebox already. Or reposted a couple of times (search “Snow is Gone”). I thought about posting one of the more depressing songs (“Lawrence, KS”), but like I said earlier, who doesn’t need a little more joy in their lives? And without a doubt, this is a joyful song. “Good Man” is the rare song by Ritter that I love, but didn’t really connect with right away. It kind of snuck up on me, like an outlaw ambush in a black & white Western where you can tell the good guys from the bad by the color of their hats. I also happen to prefer the studio version, but that brings me back to the joyful thing again.
The song itself is kind of a low-key joy, full of sidelong glances and sly smiles. But Ritter’s performance in this clip, like almost every single one of his performances, is overflowing with that emotion. Besides Yo-Yo Ma, I have never seen anyone smile so much when they’re onstage. He is practically bubbling. And it’s infectious. As I was watching the clip, I kept thinking how much I liked the studio version, yet I kept watching anyway. And smiling. Unconsciously, almost unwillingly, smiling. Full on, crinkle up the eyes smiling. Because that’s what Josh Ritter inspires in me. Like he sings in the song, “I’m a good man for you.”
This. This is why I love Josh Ritter so much.
“Thunderbolt’s Goodnight” is one of the tracks off his forthcoming album Gathering, so I don’t really have any sort of commentary other than “wow.” Ritter somehow manages to reach inside me and squeeze my heart until it feels completely wrung of every last emotion. And he’s done it consistently, album after album. There is always at least one song that just kills me. It’s why I’m going to see him twice in the next few months–at Fingerprints in Long Beach in September, and at the Teregram Ballroom in January (I even splurged a little on the VIP package, which entitles me to a swag bag and an exclusive pre-show acoustic set with all the other VIP purchasers). He’s just so. . . I hate to say authentic, but that’s what he is. No. “Authentic” has lost much of its meaning. A better word would be genuine. He seems to be singing from a place of genuine emotion. Whatever his songs mean to him–whether they are drawn from his life or complete fiction, it makes no difference–they come from someplace real within him that he genuinely feels. And that genuine feeling makes me really happy. Even when it makes me want to cry just a little.
I’ve posted this song a couple of times before. I don’t care if I’m being repetitious. I just might post it a hundred times. I abso-freakin-lutely love this song. And besides, it’s Spring!
Because this video makes me smile. Because I know I could really use a smile right now, and I’ll bet a lot of y’all could, too. Because I rarely see anyone who loves their work as much as Josh Ritter does. Because I’m wondering what he’s seeing with his eyes closed.
There’s a reason this is the first official single from Josh Ritter’s new album, Sermon on the Rocks. It’s also now officially one of my favorite songs by him.
I posted the video with the lyrics (even though they’re written in Josh’s not-so-tidy penmanship) because Ritter’s rapid-fire delivery can be a little dizzying, in a good way. There’s also this really fun clip of a dance instructor teaching a dance he choreographed to the song. Which makes sense since this is the most danceable song I think Ritter’s ever done. Just today, as I was unloading the dishwasher and putting cat food away, I was shaking’ my booty to this tune (I even listened to it twice). But I am a writer, and therefore lyrics are important to me. And these words about living your life the way you want in spite of everyone else kind of need to be heard. By everyone.
I’m seeing Josh Ritter at Fingerprints tonight. There’s really not anything else that needs saying.