Potato Heads

Moscow, Idaho’s music scene breaks into Seattle.

Resting on the eastern edge of the Palouse, the rolling hills of Moscow, Idaho, serve as home to the University of Idaho, cows with honest-to-God windows in their sides, the Dan O'Brien Track and Field Center (named after the Olympian), and a total population of just over 20,000.

For Seattleites, Moscow's known primarily as a place to get a good breakfast during Dad's weekend at nearby Washington State University, and to local students and band directors for UI's annual Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. It's also starting to garner a reputation as a breeding ground for singers and songwriters; and just as Austin, Texas, and Athens, Ga., were considered islands of liberalism and culture in wider seas of racism (whether or not they actually were) and stagnation, Northern Idaho has its own beacon.

"It's an area that encourages the arts and a place where art is accepted," said Bob Greene, the owner of BookPeople of Moscow, an independent bookseller that's operated in Moscow for more than three decades. "We have a school of music that's very supportive, the city has several music venues, and our radio stations, like Radio Free Moscow and student station KUOI, play local artists. It's just a conducive place to practice your music."

This college town–turned–cultural gem has spit out a disproportionate number of artists making very good music, including folk outfit Horse Feathers, experimental indie-rock trio Finn Riggins, and already-legendary songsmith Josh Ritter—performing at the Showbox on Sunday in support of his latest and greatest, So Runs the World Away. According to Greene, sunny days can see a handful of busking artists on Moscow's main streets—an impressive achievement for a town its size. The city's motto, "Heart of the Arts," seems to be well-earned.

Recognized as one of the great troubadours of his generation with seven full-length albums to his name, Ritter, 33, was born and raised in Moscow before attending UI. Growing up far out of town, with no video games or television as a child, learning to entertain himself was a must; and though he's since moved to New York, Ritter is the first to say the spirit of his hometown never left him.

"I loved growing up in Moscow, and I feel really connected to it now," said Ritter, who regularly travels back to visit friends and family. "It's a place I think about a lot—not necessarily when I'm writing, but it comes out in my writing, which I think is a far deeper connection. Where my brother and I grew up was pretty far out of town, and we had nothing that was more entertaining than going off in the woods or playing guitar. And when I learned how to play guitar, it became obsessive, because it was the only thing that was there."

For others, this region was more a starting place than a continuing inspiration. Born less than an hour down the road in Lewiston and schooled at UI, Justin Ringle, frontman of the now-Portland-based indie-folk outfit Horse Feathers, draws on nature-rich themes and moods that readily evoke thoughts of Idaho's fertile landscape. But though growing up in this rural town offered similar "opportunities" to practice his art, the decision to move in pursuit of a music career was made without much hesitation.

"I guess I don't live there anymore for a reason," Ringle says of Lewiston. "It's on the precipice of some very beautiful places, but definitely not any sort of beacon of culture."

And for a select few, Idaho is more than home. Finn Riggins—playing the Georgetown Music Festival this Saturday, and, with Moscow-based MC Plaedo, at the sister event, Artopia—came together while the three were UI students in the mid-aughts. After spending more than seven years there (they're now based in Boise), the interconnected, encouraging and free-spirited musical community they grew in left a lasting impression.

"While we were there, people were really supportive of each other, and the community really supports music in general," said Finn Riggins guitarist and vocalist Lisa Simpson. "The thing about Idaho that's really nice is that there's a different sense of history here. There isn't an Idaho sound, so there's nothing to live up to."

As demonstrated by their fourth studio album Vs. Wilderness, Finn Riggins' northern Idaho roots are evident—as is the bandmates' stubborn commitment to remaining a part of the community they've grown in. Though they spend more time touring than not, the band is truly in love with their home.

"Being in a place where there's not a lot of music industry drives an art-for-art's-sake or music-for-music's-sake type of attitude about it that definitely plays an underlying role in the scene here," said keyboardist and vocalist Eric Gilbert. "We really like living in Idaho, and we weren't convinced we had to leave in order to make it in the music business."

As touring musicians, acts that got their start in Moscow have had the opportunity to experience cities and music communities from coast to coast. And whether they stuck around or not, the musicians this college town has sparked are a testament to its music community's power.

"Even when I'm here in New York, the city is compressed down into a little village, a Moscow-sized place with the places I go and the people I know," Ritter says. "Maybe there is something in the water there. It's probably better than whatever's in the water here."


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