Jason Ringenberg stands tall
Throughout much of the 1980s, Americana legends Jason & the Nashville Scorchers was the most popular band in the Music City. Sure, talented folks like Afrikan Dreamland, the White Animals, Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks, and the Questionnaires came close. But when it came time to put asses in the seats on the carnival ride that was the local music scene, nobody sold tickets quite like the frenetic foursome of singer Jason Ringenberg, guitarist Warner Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson, and Nashville’s own “Keith Moon,” drummer Perry Baggz (née Baggs).
Here’s where I’m compelled to reveal that Jason Ringenberg is a longtime acquaintance, and that I’ve written extensively about Jason & the Scorchers since the band’s formation, including a 2012 book Scorched Earth: A Jason & the Scorchers Scrapbook. Although I may have been one of the first music journalists to write about the band nationally, beginning with a 1981 article in CMJ’s Progressive Media magazine, I wasn’t alone in my appreciation of the Scorchers. As the late, revered rock critic Jimmy Guterman once wrote, “The band was able to erect a sound that approximated nothing so much as Joe Strummer hurling a wrecking ball through the Grand Ole Opry.”
The Scorchers only released three full-length albums, as well as a pair of vinyl EPs during the ‘80s before going supernova, not so much breaking up, says Warner Hodges, as “we fell apart.” A 1995 band reunion (sans Baggs) resulted in a pair of well-received studio albums – that year’s A Blazing Grace and 1996’s Clear Impetuous Morning – as well as a 1998 double-live album and video. In 2008, the Americana Music Association honored the Scorchers with its “Lifetime Achievement Award” at their annual show in Nashville, the event resulting in a reunion of the original band. But with Johnson subsequently retired from touring and sporadically making music on his own, and Perry Baggs sadly passing away in 2012, Ringenberg and Hodges would reunite under the Scorchers banner for 2010’s Halcyon Times album.
During the ensuing years, Ringenberg has pursued a two-track solo career as both an esteemed roots-rock artist and as a children’s performer (under his artistic alter-ego, “Farmer Jason”). After releasing the ill-fated One Foot In the Honky Tonk album as ‘Jason’ for Liberty Records in 1992 (the major label trying to force the singer/songwriter into a more traditional country sound), Ringenberg went the indie-rock route and bounced back with a string of critically-acclaimed solo albums in the early ‘00s, beginning with 2000’s A Pocketful of Soul and including 2002’s All Over Creation and 2004’s Empire Builders, the latter two released by Yep Roc Records.
Sensing, perhaps, that his time in the spotlight had come and gone, Ringenberg largely retired to the life of a gentleman farmer in Tennessee, performing now and then as Farmer Jason to adoring children whose parents he once entertained with the hard-toured Jason & the Scorchers. However, a chance phone call from Sequoia National Park Ranger Dawn Ryan brought an offer for the songwriter to participate in the park’s “artist in residency” program. “The National Park Service called me out of the blue asking me to come out to Sequoia National Park,” says Jason in an email interview with Rock and Roll Globe. “Stay in a mountain cabin, do a few shows, and write songs. Before they finished their third sentence I said yes. This was an opportunity of a lifetime.
“My residency lasted about a month,” he recalls. “I stayed in a cabin at about 8,500 feet. There was no power there. I could walk about a half a mile and be in the Sierra Nevada Mountains or hike down a thousand feet and be in Sequoia Grove.” Other than a bunch of great songs, what else did Ringenberg take away from the residency? “The experience changed me beyond words,” says Jason. “To spend that much time in such a magnificent place moved me to the core of my being. I found myself much closer to God and way more in tune to my own creative powers.”
The songs Jason wrote during his residency would become the foundation of Stand Tall, the singer’s first solo album in nearly fourteen years. Opening with the rowdy instrumental title track, the song’s western-themed guitar licks (by Robbie Stokes and Andrew Staff) are matched by a definite Celtic lilt with fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and pedal-steel guitar providing a lush soundtrack to the song. It’s an audacious opening, jumping immediately into the twang ‘n’ bang of “Lookin’ Back Blues.” A roughneck honky-tonk romp, the song features Ringenberg’s typically wry wordplay and raucous instrumentation the equal of any Scorchers track.
The well-read Ringenberg has long been a smart, erudite lyricist who incorporates the most unlikely characters into his songs. Witness “John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger,” an up-tempo country-rock tune and one of two songs from Stand Tall recorded in Nashville by longtime friend, guitarist, and producer George Bradfute. The song frames the religious icon in a far different light, referring to him, alternately, as a “drunk folk singer,” “old blues singer,” and a “punk rock singer” as well as an “old gunslinger.” It sounds a bit ostentatious at first, but with its locomotive instrumentation and machinegun vocals delivered in Jason’s typically earnest manner, it’s a fairly straight-forward (if a bit cheeky) retelling of the legend of John the Baptist. Similarly, the Ramones are remembered and immortalized by “God Bless the Ramones,” an equally bold bit of cowpunk storytelling that even kicks off with the band’s trademark “1-2-3-4” opening.
A ‘based on a true story’ tale of the Scorchers 1982 tour opening for the NYC punk-rock legends that also name-checks Killing Joke and Black Flag, Jason sings “though we had no master plan, no amps that worked, or a running van,” the band went on the adventure nonetheless. Ringenberg crams a lot of words into each verse and, in less capable hands, the song would crash and burn under the weight of its aspirations. But with its infectious chorus of “God bless the Ramones, they never made much money, most folks either hated them, or thought that they were funny,” accompanied by blistering guitars and wiry lap steel, the song digs its way into your consciousness where it will sit for days.
It takes a brave man to quote both naturalist John Muir and the Ramones (“Gabba, gabba, hey!”) on an album sleeve without pretension, as Ringenberg does on Stand Tall and sure enough, Muir gets his time in the spotlight with “John Muir Stood Here,” an upbeat rocker that pays homage to the environmental activist’s contributions to the American landscape. All of these songs capture a sense of history and their subjects’ intellectual and emotional impact on the songwriter, but what inspires Jason about these real-life influences and how easy is it to write about them? “To me, real people always make for a more interesting subject than fictional characters,” says Jason. “I have tackled some big spirits in my time, and hopefully will be able to keep doing so.”
Stand Tall is split between the aforementioned unbridled rockers and folkier, more reflective moments befitting Ringenberg’s experience in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “I’m Walking Home” is a mid-tempo historical story-song that explores the complexities of the Civil War while “Here In the Sequoias” is a bluegrass-tinged reflection on the splendors of nature. The album offers a handful of well-considered cover songs as well, including country legend Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride,” which is delivered with quiet reverence and a loping gait, and the obscure Bob Dylan track “Farewell Angelina,” on which Ringenberg’s lofty vocals perfectly capture the wistful melancholy of The Scribe’s original.
Much of Stand Tall was recorded by producer Mike Lescelius at Misunderstudio in Murphysboro, Illinois near where Ringenberg grew up before moving to Nashville. What was it like going home, in a sense, to Illinois to record the album? “It was an interesting chemistry, recording a new project in a place where I once went to college,” says Jason. “While recording, I kept having flashbacks to those times, especially when singing ‘Farewell Angelina’, a song I first heard in Southern Illinois as a beatnik college student. And then to add to the chemistry, my bandmates from my first bands were the main rhythm section on Stand Tall. Tom Miller was on drums and Gary Gibula laid down the bass and some guitar. They played brilliantly. It was such a pleasure to make music with them again, after a 40 year break…”
As one of the band’s original fans, I had to ask the erstwhile frontman, will we see another Jason & the Scorchers album in our lifetime? “It is doubtful,” he says, “but not out of the question. However, it is not something I would bet on. We have only made one new studio record in 23 years…” Nevertheless, Jason Ringenberg’s return with Stand Tall will sate the appetite of any diehard Scorchers fan and the album, imbued with no little “reckless country soul,” should also find new listeners who will appreciate the singer’s sincere and unpretentious approach to making music.
Find out more about Jason Ringenberg and Stand Tall at www.jasonringenberg.com