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Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter wrote the rollicking rodeo he wanted to read

Josh Ritter (Laura Wilson)
Josh Ritter (Laura Wilson)

Editor’s Note: This segment was rebroadcast on Sept. 5, 2022. That audio is available here.

Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has a way with words.

In 2006, Paste Magazine named him one of the 100 greatest living songwriters for works like “Girl in the War” off of his acclaimed album, “The Animal Years.”

But the musician has more tricks up his sleeve. Stephen King compared Ritter’s “compressed lyricism” in the 2011 novel “Bright’s Passage” to that of Ray Bradbury.

Ritter’s latest novel, “The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All,” is out this week. Set in the fictional timber town of Cordelia, Idaho, readers follow a 13-year-old boy named Welden Applegate who comes of age among lumberjacks at the turn of the 20th century. His story is told in the late 1980s through the eyes of Applegate himself — but at 99 years old.

Raised in northern Idaho, Ritter was surrounded by “the ghosts of early logging,” he says. In the book’s afterword, Ritter thanks his parents for their decision to live in Idaho, a place that he now understands shaped his life as he knows it.

His novel brings an old timber town to life through the magic that once existed there — an enchantment from an era he missed out on.

Applegate has always been a character living in Ritter’s head, he says, to the point where “I feel like I could think about him as separate from me.” The same goes for the fictional town of Cordelia and the region of St. Anne, which eventually became a real ecosystem in his mind.

Ritter is used to having a crowd fill his head. In many of his books and songs, distinct characters break through — whether it’s a young man coming back from World War I, parents worrying about their daughter and sending her to Bible school or an explorer making his way to the North Pole. He says he’s fortunate that he has a “natural well” of story ideas.

In the deep forests of Cordelia, lumberjacks send logs down the mountainsides using wooden chutes. But if anything goes haywire, the log can shoot off path and kill 20 men at a time. Ritter based these bountiful woods off of St. Joe, Idaho, an area known for its logging industry and beautiful white pines, he says.

While on tour playing music, he learned about logging lore by picking up books at local used bookstores across the Northwest, he says.

“It was like reading about the place that I had grown up with,” he says, “but it was infused with a magic that I hadn’t seen as clearly as I did when I was separated from that place by thousands of miles.”

One character, Linden Laughlin, starts off in young Applegate’s eyes being the best lumberjack to exist. But Laughlin, “an epitome of a lumberjack in his skill and strength,” is a classic bully and eventually a mortal enemy, Ritter says. And as readers flip through the pages, they find Applegate may face more enemies around the corner.

Cordelia empties out when there’s no logging, leaving behind a haunting feeling that is amplified by a pianist who plays one tune over and over. It’s a real song called “Some Somewhere” recorded by Ritter.

The piano player “caught [the song] like an infection. It was a song that he heard from a man on a mountain pass,” Ritter says. “And that song had been driving this guy wild, and he passed that on to the next guy and the next guy and the next guy.”

“The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All” transports readers into the depths of the woods with young and elderly Applegate. The 99 year old, nearing his deathbed, is consistently asked about the golden age of lumberjacks.

“Many of the questions that I feel like people ask Weldon, I want to know the answers to as well,” the author says.

After penning his first novel, he says he set out to write a humorous, profane, witty and rollicking rodeo for his second book.

“I wanted to have some empathy in it, and I just want to have some real antagonists,” he says. “So that’s what I set out to do with ‘Great Glorious Goddamn.’ ”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: ‘The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All’

By Josh Ritter

Until Joe Mouffreau, I never thought I’d have a mortal enemy again. Then Joe came back from the Second World War, tearing through the St. Anne river valley in the fancy new car his daddy bought him, throwing around the money that his daddy gave him and convincing his daddy to start in on a fancy new way to just log the holy hell out of the St. Anne. I pegged Joe Mouffreau the moment I first saw him as a lying, foolish, condescending idiot, well worth my bitter spite, and I gotta hand it to him, Joe did a bang-up job as my mortal enemy for most of my life.

“The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All” by Josh Ritter.

Now look at me, lying here in a hospital bed with tubes in my arms and applesauce to eat. Yesterday afternoon I was drinking at the Brothers Swede, watching the soaps. I was ninety-nine years old, sure, but still I was in my prime, full of Rainier and vinegar, fixing to live forever. Then along came Joe Mouffreau, as short-necked, spindle-armed, lite-beer-drinking, milk-chasing, fast-food-smelling, big-talking, nervous-guffawing, flabby-handled, freeloading, sideways-glancing, barrel-chested, jolly-wheezingly poor a substitute for the grim reaper as Fate could supply. Maybe I shouldn’t be so gobsmacked. After all, me and Joe were set at odds from the beginning, and over time, the knowledge of his essential wretchedness has come to shape my belief that our mortal enemies can keep us alive.

So despite everything that’s happened, maybe I owe him my gratitude. Maybe Joe—with his four Jet Skis, his Harley-Davidson and his hundreds of channels, his house, that enormous, fake log-cabin-style Goliath, more plastic than pine, his whoop-de-do gas barbecue range and his clear-cuts—was keeping me alive the whole time. Still, there comes a time with mortal enemies when you have to have it out with them. It may not be a time or place of your own choosing, but in order to outlive somebody, one of you has to die. There are plenty of ways I could have left this life with more dignity than at Joe Mouffreau’s hand. You could search the great-wide supermarket of Human Experience and find a million other fates that would go down easier than this particular brand of humiliation. Still, if you think that I care, you’re wrong. Maybe for some it’s a scary thing to be small, but I’m not scared. My name is Weldon Applegate, and I’ve been small before.

And anyway, it’s not like Joe emerged from the field of battle covered in glory, either.

Having mortal enemies was one of the ways my father and I were always different. Tom Applegate never seemed to have any enemies at all, mortal or otherwise. He was always affable, always kept an open countenance, and from the moment we first set foot in the tiny timber town of Cordelia when I was ten years old, he’d been respected as an Applegate, whose father and grandfather had both been famous lumberjacks in their times. We’d made quite a stir, my father and me, when Peg Ramsay brought us to his tiny town to run the general store after Lyle Llewellyn died. All who had heard stories of the Applegates tipped their caps in respect, and of course everyone knew about the Lost Lot, and how it was my father’s by inheritance and still untouched. As we walked through the mud of Main Street, Peg had asked my father if he liked Cordelia. My father had said yes, oh yes, he liked it. He was a romantic, my dad.

There had been a time in his youth, before I was born, when my father could have taken to the woods for good. He had worked in the timber around the Montana border with his own father for several seasons and was good at it. His father, Old Tom, had followed the big trees to the St. Anne, and my father would have gone, as well, but for meeting my mother. He stood squarely behind her in their wedding photo, his big hand on her tiny shoulder, his thick, powerful body jammed into wedding attire, looking every bit the caged woodsbeast. There was kindness and humor in his eyes, but also a glint of good-time mischief and hard, hard work. He’d met my mother on a trip to Moscow, Idaho. She was working behind the counter at her family’s store. The match was lopsided for sure, her family well-to-do, my father so poor he could barely afford to whistle a tune, but they had fallen in love and you know how that goes.

My mother was no fool, though, and lumberjacking, with its dangers, deprivations and enforced absence, was no way to raise a family if you could possibly avoid it. She promised to marry him if he’d leave the woods behind. So, he made her the damn oath. It couldn’t have been easy; jacking was the only life my father (and his father and his father before that) had ever known. Cut those men and they would have bled pinesap. But he said yes, yes of course, and they settled down and I came along.

To my childish eyes he seemed happy and content. He wasn’t one of those fathers who seethed or brooded; his face was placid as a bucket of milk. Even when word came that his own father had died working in the tall timber, he took the news in stride. You’d have thought at least that when the deed to the Lost Lot arrived with my grandfather’s ax and the rest of his few personal possessions, that it would have had some effect on his self-control, but no. That craggy, tree-covered jut of mountain was just a place on some map to him. He hadn’t seen it with his own eyes yet. And anyway, my father had made an oath to leave the woods behind and that was that. At least that’s what I thought.

He was an affable, honest guy, Tom was, and he knew his way around numbers, so he helped manage Able and Able’s, the general store owned by my mother’s family. All day he stocked wares and made small talk, bargained with suppliers and kept the books. He was behind the counter the day that my mother died out of the blue from a stroke at the age of twenty-five, when I was six years old, and he continued to work there for almost four years after her death, but without her shoulder to place his hand upon, he drifted. He dragged himself out of bed each morning and put on nice clothes to work the store, but he tied his apron on loosely, and the thing seemed to hold itself away from his body, as if it no longer quite fit him. He still made small talk with customers, but it was clear that when my mother died the forest that he had cut back from around his heart had begun to edge its wild way in again. You couldn’t see the tendrils of that other life braiding themselves into the very stream of his blood, but the breath of the pine trees came out in the lumberjack stories he would tell me at bedtime.

He’d tell how the toppers, men born without fear, would climb hundreds of feet into the air, cutting off branches along the way, removing the top of the pine and attaching pulleys to what was left in order to skid trees. He’d laugh as he told me stories of jacks who’d gotten so rich in the woods that, at season’s end, they’d ordered themselves a private train to take them to the rowdy, swirling magic of The Lights, where there were underground bars as long as entire city blocks. “They were so long,” he said, “that the men would all divide up into the nations they were from and as you walked down the bar you felt as if you were passing through the countries themselves.” Ireland was loud, Finland was silent. My mother would never have countenanced telling such stories to a seven-year-old, but Tom wasn’t made for life behind a counter, and at night his heart would wander.

My mother’s family were society folks, intent on my being brought up right, so I went to school and Sunday school and learned to read and write and fear hellfire. Even though my mother was gone, things continued on, stable and uneventful enough that the entrance of Peg Ramsay into Able and Able’s when I was ten years old was like the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. Peg was wearing his forest-green blazer and he spoke to my father about the St. Anne, about the little town of Cordelia and its dead shopkeep and about the Lost Lot, which was not just a piece of land, but a sublime and terrifying reminder that all men are mortal. He told of drinking Dream, and of the levitation of the soul it brought, of the dances by lantern-light and of Oral Avery, the topper who had recently been struck sleepless by a bolt of lightning while climbing high up in a tree on a bet.

There was no way a man like my father could resist those stories. He wouldn’t work the woods, he told me (and himself), but Cordelia was a real lumberjack town, and it had done him good to be raised up in such a place. He told my mother’s family about the pretty town and its church and nice little school, but privately he told me that I had had enough schooling and God for now, and that Peg Ramsay himself would give me a job sweeping hair in his shop and doing other jobs around town. What sane ten-year-old kid would say no to that kind of adventure? I mean, here we were, trapped—me in school, my father behind a counter—when we could be in Cordelia, smack-dab in the middle of our own damn epic.

Excerpted from The Great Glorious Goddamn of it All by Josh Ritter © 2021, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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