Nashville singer Cole Ritter sailed through the Duet round of competition on American Idol April 3 when he teamed up with another Tennessee native, HunterGirl. Their performance of Dreams by Fleetwood Mac got a standing ovation from Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry.
Weeks before that, those same judges gave Cole the coveted golden ticket to Hollywood when he sang Georgia on My Mind for his Idol audition. At the time, they described him as “Michael Bublé with a guitar.” Cole says, “The audition was the scariest thing I’ve ever done; they just kind of throw you into a room with three of the biggest names in music.”
Cole was up against more than 120,000 other contestants who were all vying for the opportunity to perform in front of the celebrity judges. “So just to be selected out of a pool like that was an honor.” Cole confesses that Katy Perry was always a bit of a celebrity crush of his, so he was really flattered when she told him he had “a great sound, great look, and great personality.”
But it was Luke Bryan that Cole felt a real connection with. “He felt the most like home to me because he’s a Nashville boy. We eat at the same restaurants, and we know all the same places.” That’s because Cole is a native of the Nashville area. He grew up in the town of Hendersonville (20 miles north of Music City) and then attended Belmont University, near the heart of Nashville.
When he was just three years old, Cole started playing the violin after seeing a group of school-age kids perform at a street fair. “I immediately fell in love with the instrument and decided I had to play one.” By the time he was eight, Cole was touring the Southeast with the Nashville Suzuki Players and had opportunities to play the violin with the Oakridge Boys and perform at Disney World. “Having those kinds of experiences put this bug inside of me that I wanted to play music.”
Over the years, Cole’s family provided him with support and inspiration. His dad is a professional musician who exposed Cole to 1950’s style crooners, rockabilly, and bluegrass. His grandmother is a pianist; she introduced him to classical music and southern gospel. His mom is a theater teacher who influenced him in the direction of pop, rock, and folk music.
It is ironic that the gifted singer who wowed the American Idol judges and got three “yes” votes never saw himself as an artist or band frontman until a few years ago. “I didn’t realize that I wanted to be an artist when I first got to college.” Cole had been playing fiddle and touring with a few different bands. “There came a point where I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in that anymore and I felt compelled to start telling stories and writing songs.” He connected with a bass player who lived down the hall, and they performed a few songs for a showcase at their dorm. When the audience responded enthusiastically to Cole’s original songs, he had an epiphany. “That’s the moment when I realized I needed to start doing something with this.”
After spending that summer writing as much as possible, Cole put a band together at the start of his sophomore year at Belmont. They called themselves “The Night Owls” because “we’d stay up super late into the night, playing music until the sun rose.” The band members included Tom Davis (bass); Christian Starrett (guitar); Matt Martirano (drums); and Alex Barcic (pedal steel guitar, dobro). They started out playing mostly cover songs and rockabilly, but ended up submitting to play a showcase at Belmont in the “country music” category. Around that time, Cole was going through some personal struggles. “I was dealing with a lot of anxiety. It was crippling to the point that I couldn’t even function at school. The chance of playing the showcase the next semester was the only thing that kept me going.”
Cole Ritter and The Night Owls won first place in their genre at the Belmont showcase. That was February 2020. “We were on a high. We had just won the showcase. We were invited to record at RCA Studio B, which is where Elvis recorded.” They were contacted by a record label, and the band’s future looked promising. Then Covid hit, and the momentum they had created came to a sudden halt.
Reflecting on the months spent in quarantine, Cole says, “I’m very thankful for that time because I wrote some better songs that fit the album so much more in the end. Without that season, I would have never been able to have the space and opportunity to cultivate these songs.” Cole is referring to the 5-song EP that he and The Night Owls recently released.
The band celebrated the release of Between the Hours of Dusk and Dawn on March 9 with a party and performance at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley. Leading up to the show, they had a half dozen rehearsals to polish their act – all while three of the band members were still fulltime students at Belmont.
Just before going on stage, they gathered together in a tight circle for their pre-show ritual. “We pray together before every single show in hopes that it all glorifies God and that we’re all in the right headspace for it.” The band opened with a rousing instrumental Western intro, which Cole says was inspired by movie soundtracks from old Spaghetti Westerns. After playing a handful of cover songs, they played all the tracks from the new EP (now available on all digital platforms). Watch video highlights below.
The band’s music has evolved from the early days of rockabilly covers. Guitarist Christian Starrett describes their sound as “very Americana, very country, but we have a lot of blues aspects and rock and roll aspects, even jazz. As players, we all come from different places and different years, and we’ve grown up listening to different things.” All of the band members play multiple instruments. In addition to singing, Cole plays fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and piano.
Cole wants people to know that it’s not just about the music. “I think every band should have some kind of core values, like what do they want their central message to be? For us, it’s authenticity. We want to be the same people on and off stage – just be approachable and honest people.”
Cole is grateful to have a talented and dedicated group of musicians who share his vision. “We all have the same goals musically and in life, so we operate as one unit. Even though I write the songs, they’re the paint.”
Follow Cole’s story on Season 20 of American Idol on ABC.
Cole Ritter and The Night Owls will be touring this summer in Texas and Ohio, with more locations and dates to be added.
FUN FACTS AND TRIVIA
Cole’s musical influences include Hank Williams, Chris Isaak, Chris Stapleton
Favorite restaurant in his hometown of Hendersonville: Lyncoya Café (where he orders the Firecracker Sandwich)
Favorite places to take out-of-town visitors: Country Music Hall of Fame and the Belmont campus gardens
Band’s favorite TV shows & movies:
Tom: The Big Lebowski
Christian: Indiana Jones, James Bond, old Westerns
Matt: The Sopranos