Three Weeks in the Wilderness Put Jason Ringenberg Back in the Groove
As the twangy, whirligigging supernova of a frontman for the seminal cowpunk band Jason and the Scorchers, Jason Ringenberg has fired up fans and confounded the establishment since the early ’80s. In recent years, he’s delighted children with his Farmer Jason persona. But in early 2017, he felt a pang that strikes plenty of artists sooner or later: Perhaps he just wasn’t vital anymore.
For Ringenberg, of all people, to question his vibrancy runs counter to the mythos that has surrounded him for more than three decades. This man — who struts and wails through exhausting live shows, consuming the energy of alt-country aficionados (or their smiling kids) like the firebox of a steam locomotive — is having an existential crisis?
“I didn’t think the audience was there, and my own muse wasn’t there,” Ringenberg tells the Scene. “I’m not going to be a martyr, but I had been thinking it was time for me to accept my recording career was over.”
But then he got an unexpected call from a ranger at Northern California’s Sequoia National Park. The National Park Service has an artist-in-residence program, wherein artists — usually visual artists, naturally — live in the park, and in exchange for room, board and inevitable inspiration, they produce works of art. Or as in Ringenberg’s case, they perform.
“I thought it was joke,” Ringenberg says. “But they were experimenting with doing musical artists, and I think it was Farmer Jason that drew them to me. It didn’t take them 30 seconds into their pitch before I agreed.”
Ringenberg headed west in June 2017 with the idea that he’d perform “Take a Hike” for visiting kids and get three weeks of head-clearing vacation on the Department of Interior’s dime.
“When I got there, everything just changed,” he says.
With the majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the quiet (except for the diesel generator that ran his refrigerator) surrounding him, a dam broke within. Out poured song after song after song, in what he calls the easiest songwriting experience of his career.
The result is Stand Tall, Ringenberg’s first album under his own name since 2004’s Empire Builders. And whereas that earlier record was a product of its time — it’s the post-9/11 middle finger to the Bush era that Green Day’s American Idiot tried to be — the new effort is definitely the product of a place.
Ringenberg’s songs often evoke a strong sense of place, but as is appropriate for a country-fried band with a lead singer from rural Illinois, the Scorchers’ geography is Southern and Midwestern. Stand Tall looks toward the setting sun. The instrumental title track opens the album, leaving no question that these songs come from beyond the Marfa line, sounding like the theme to the unmade fourth Man With No Name film.
Other tracks were clearly inspired by Ringenberg’s residency. “Here in the Sequoias” stands back to back with “John Muir Stood Here,” the latter a shouty paean to the Scottish-born naturalist, who after wandering to the South from his home in the Midwest, went to California to advocate for public land.
There are hints of the wilderness elsewhere, too. At first blush, Jesus’ cousin seems an odd subject for a biographical rock song. But “John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger” leaves the listener wondering why it took so long for the bug-eating, establishment-hating wild man to be so honored.
“I had been compelled by the character, and the Baptist was a wilderness-driven human, so I think the Sequoia experience compelled me,” Ringenberg says. “It doesn’t make fun of him or deify him.”
Throughout the album there are fun Easter eggs for those whom he describes as “old-school folks who care about sequencing.” “God Bless the Ramones,” a remembrance of the Scorchers’ first big out-of-state tour (a loop through Texas with the punk pioneers), leads into a cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride.” It’s a sort of two-song microcosm of the sonic amalgam Ringenberg has been perfecting for decades. The Rodgers tune is followed by “I’m Walking Home,” the tale of a disaffected Confederate soldier heading west (appropriately enough) to Bristol, Tenn., where Rodgers and others would record the foundational songs of country music.
Armed with the new tracks and a handful of covers, Ringenberg knew he had an album. Not wanting to be beholden to a record company, he funded it through an IndieGoGo campaign for release on his own Courageous Chicken imprint. If the solitude of the Sequoias had convinced him he still had music to give, the crowdfunding effort convinced him he still had an audience.
One of the rewards for donating to Ringenberg’s IndieGoGo campaign was the promise that the singer would record any song in his catalog with a personal message for the donor. And 186 recordings later, he felt vital again: Fans requested not just beloved anthems like “Broken Whiskey Glass,” but deep cuts he hadn’t thought about in decades.
“These were songs that meant something to people, and I said, ‘I really should be making music,’ ” Ringenberg says. “It is a value to people. Not tens of thousands of people, but people who matter.”
Filled with new confidence, he set to record. He enlisted bassist Gary Gibula and drummer Tom Miller, his bandmates from his pre-Nashville college days at Southern Illinois University, and recorded at what he describes as a “tin-shack studio” in rural downstate Illinois.
“I had thought about recording in Southern Illinois for a while, because there’s some good records coming out of there, so it made sense to give it a whirl,” he says. “It wasn’t a return to roots, but it was neat chemistry. It was a good choice. They’ve known me for decades, so I was able to have a sense of history.”
Long past the days of piling into a van for months on end, Ringenberg will instead do a four-night residency at The 5 Spot, playing the 6 p.m. slot every Thursday in February — a concession to his fans that Ringenberg is happy to make. Back from the mountains with renewed confidence and new songs, the frenetic live shows that built Ringenberg’s reputation should feel fresh again, like the bracing wind blowing through the tall trees.
by J.R. Lind