WCU Visiting Professor Shares Eclectic Tastes

The first chords of “Hold My Hand” begin. A soft drum falls in with the light guitar, and Jamie Ridenhour’s steady strong voice delivers lyrics of hope and friendship. “Fourth of July,” the second song on No Good Reason, is a more mellow song showcasing the talented musician’s abilities and creative variety. The album has a definite poetic quality; Bob Dylan’s influence echoes throughout.

I first heard the music and poetry of Florence, South Carolina, native Jamie Ridenhour when he was a guest speaker in my introduction to professional writing class. His gentle nature and obvious passion for his work was influential in the formation of my ideas of what a real musician/ writer should be. That was three years ago.

As I sat down in Ridenhour’s office a few weeks ago and looked around at the Western Carolina University English teacher’s choice of décor, which included artwork, photographs of his wife and young son, and a poster of The Clash, I quickly realized that he is strongly influenced by a lot of different things and is highly aware of the world around him.

Ridenhour teaches freshman composition 101 and 102 in the English department, but he will be soon departing for the University of South Carolina in Columbia to earn his Ph.D. in English. It comes as no surprise to learn that he does incorporate music into his class discussions; however, he adds that he does not generally use his own music as a teaching tool for fear of seeming pretentious. Some professors try to infiltrate music into their classroom. Ridenhour believes that music is just as much a part of literature as are books. He encourages multimedia lectures and films also because they appeal to the different senses and help students, particularly freshman who are in required classes, to gain some enthusiasm about their studies.

When Jamie Ridenhour was young, he saw a Fleetwood Mac concert on HBO. He remembers the program as being influential in his yearning to be a musician. At age thirteen he began playing the guitar and was in bands throughout high school and college. In high school Ridenhour says he was into the classic rock scene, siting influences such as The Who. In college he got into the folk rock scene which was fueled by singer/ songwriter legends like James Taylor and Harry Chapin. As many artists will admit, their influences change as their work evolves. Currently, Ridenhour is going through an acoustic rock period inspired by Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, and others.

The creative process is a delicate one even with such mighty influences. Jamie Ridenhour has a system that apparently works, however, and the fact that he writes music and poetry is part of it. Sometimes he has a melody in his head and eventually writes words to go with it. Other times an idea and lyrics come to him, and he later writes the accompanying music. Much of the process depends on the nature of the piece and is not something predetermined.

Fiction writing has become another form of expression for Ridenhour. His belief in words for the sake of words prompted him to try his hand at composing short stories. However, at least for now, the guitar serves as Ridenhour’s voice and his creative comfort zone.

“Life is better when you are involved with music or writing,” Ridenhour said with a warm smile and his illuminating joy that comes from his work is a testament to that statement. His advice to any wanna-be writers is to read everything. His list of literary influences is as long as his list of musical influences. Similarly, he recommends that anyone who wants to break into the world of music should listen to everything whether it’s the latest on top ten or something from the classics closet. A working knowledge of music theory is also useful, Ridenhour added.

The final notes of “All That Hammering” wind down in a twisting and turning guitar lull. Ridenhour’s voice takes on a lonesome quality. The song fades away and so ends the eleven-song journey into the life and loves of an English teacher/ singer/ songwriter with big ideas and a bright future ahead of him. Ridenhour’s list of accomplishments is many and varied. He has produced an album and has performed in the local music scene. One of his most recent gigs was at Cullowhee’s Mad Batter café. In the fall he will begin work on a doctorate and will always be writing songs and poetry.