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Josh Ritter's most recent album is 2010's "So Runs the World Away," its title a literary reference to a line Hamlet speaks to Horatio as imagined, of course, by William Shakespeare.
So it should be no surprise that the 34-year-old rock singer-songwriter has written his first novel, Bright's Passage, released on June 28.
"Bright's Passage began as a song," said Ritter, who will headline Red Butte Garden on Tuesday, July 19, and who has always shown a bent for using literary allusions in his songs. "I had the song sitting there, sucking up scum in the corner."
The debut novel is the antithesis to the advice editors relay to first-time writers: "Write what you know."
Ritter grew up in Moscow, Idaho, the son of two neuroscientists, but the book follows the adventures of a haunted, shell-shocked West Virginian World War I veteran, Henry Bright. Bright is followed home from the carnage of the war by an angel, and he tries to find peace by marrying his childhood friend Rachel. She dies in childbirth, and as her vengeful family and a wildfire threaten him and his son, he flees into the wilderness with his son, horse, goat and the angel, trying to find a peace that has so far eluded him.
"When a song happens, there's no way you know how it is going to come out," Ritter said. "I have definitely traveled through West Virginia in tour, and it seems like a mythic place. I always loved my drives through West Virginia."
Ritter said he did months of research, aided by the countless and often-unpublished autobiographies of men who came home from World War I. The wide-ranging novel which he lyrically calls a "commingling of different preoccupations" explores the roots of revolutions that are taking place in the Middle East, the nature of fear, the threats inherent in love, and even post-traumatic stress.
The writer doesn't believe in the Renaissance image of angels portrayed as cherubs. "When an angel shows up, you know trouble is on the way," he said.
Ritter is noted for the way he weaves his Americana music with mythology. And it is his creative imagination that has set him apart among modern-day troubadours, ever since he recorded his first record as a 21-year-old student at Oberlin College.
His latest album, "So Runs the World Away," is a collection of songs with narrative lyrics that do something old-fashioned in this age: They tell stories.
"The Curse" tells the heartbreaking story of a mummified Egyptian pharaoh who comes to life to fall in love with the anthropologist who discovers him.
In "Another New World," the narrator is a turn-of-the-century adventurer who sets sail on a ship named Annabel Lee in a nod to Edgar Allan Poe to discover another world at the ice-packed North Pole. But the cold and snow and ice prevent the adventurer from reaching his goal, and he is forced to burn his beloved ship to keep him warm.
The song ends thus, with the words of, again, a literary man who refines his sentiment and treats it as a buried treasure, rather than an afterthought.
Ritter has achieved more critical attention than commercial success, with horror writer Stephen King reviewing Bright's Passage for The New York Times last week, calling it the work of a gifted novelist, "but the size of that gift has yet to be determined."
But anyone who saw Ritter and his band last year at The State Room knows that along with his skills as a writer and lyricist come a fiery energy and the most genuine smiles you have ever seen from a performer. "I don't have any control over [the smiles]," Ritter said. "It's the most amazing feeling. It's a complete miracle people want to come to my shows."
Blind Pilot is one of two openers at the show, and the Oregon-based band's drummer, Ryan Dobrowski, said he is hoping to read Bright's Passage on tour. "We all read quite a bit on tour," he said. "It's where I get most of our reading done. We have a tour bus now and there's a little library in there."
The tour bus and the ability to read comfortably is a change for the band, which began as a duo of friends at the University of Oregon who toured by bicycle in 2008, traveling from Bellingham, Wash., to San Diego, using custom-built trailers to transport their instruments. "It was a great thing that we did, and we look back to it fondly," Dobrowski said.
The folk-rocking duo added four new members, fleshing out the comparatively spartan sound of the first album, "3 Rounds and a Sound." Now a sextet, the band will release its sophomore album, "We Are The Tide," in September.
With The Devil Makes Three a blistering so-called "folk-punk" band from California also on the bill, the Tuesday show is expected to offer a tidal wave of music for audiences who haven't yet made the acquaintance of Ritter and the supporting bands. It's the cheapest show of the season at Red Butte Garden (with plenty of tickets still available), but it should be one of the best.
Josh Ritter & The Royal City Band
P Blind Pilot and The Devil Makes Three open.
When • Tuesday, July 19, at 7 p.m.
Where • Red Butte Garden, University of Utah, 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $30 for garden members, $35 for general public, $20 for children, at redbuttegarden,org or 801-585-0556.