Some forty years into his career as a recording artist, and it is clear that Jason Ringenberg's love of music shows no signs of diminishing. I first came across the man described by Mojo magazine as "The Godfather of Americana" following a chance remark made by Davy Carton of The Saw Doctors, who declared Jason & The Scorchers his favourite band.
In addition to fronting that exceptional country-rock band, whose legacy still stands the test of time, and with whom he won an Americana Music Association lifetime Achievement Award, he has, somewhat intriguingly, possibly, also carved out a niche for himself as the children's music character Farmer Jason, for which he has won an Emmy Award for his PBS video program. His continued output as a solo singer-songwriter remains an important aspect of his life, and the release of Rhinestoned confirms his on-going validity as a gifted artist of immense talent.
After writing and recording 'Stand Tall', his previous release from 2017-18, Jason made a deliberate decision to take time out from musical activities in order to focus upon other areas of his life. The fact that there were songs left over that didn't make the cut onto that recording, along with the realisation that his creative juices were beginning to flow once more during the Covid 19 lockdown presaged an inevitable outcome. Comprising a healthy mix of both newly-mined compositions alongside a fascinating handful of carefully chosen covers, the album, in common with so many at the moment, was recorded under social distancing restrictions and has been issued following a crowdfunding program, with the songs reflecting, in many ways, the fact that they were recorded during a pandemic and at a time of racial strife within the US.
A strong thread running throughout the album is an examination of his relationship with an ever-changing Nashville and its role in country music, with the song subjects ranging from the Lakota shaman warrior Crazy Horse to the 1962 civil rights Freedom Riders. In his words "Taken all together, this is a record populated by old souls and ghosts - both people and places". To this end, he linked up, once again, with his long-time friend and music collaborator George Bradfute, who not only produced, engineered and mixed the album but also contributed his not-insubstantial multi-instrumental talents, mainly on a collection of vintage acoustic, electric and bass guitars which feature prominently both on the cover & sleeve-notes and also on one in a series of the Barnstorming videos made by Jason, which will have afficionados drooling. With the songs being recorded in Bradfute's Tone Chaparral, Madison, Tennessee studio, which just happens to be situated in the basement of a house once owned by Jim Reeves, there is thus a glorious symmetry between the location and of the songs' themes, themselves being mainly rooted in history too.
The release also benefits greatly from the contributions made by Fats Kaplin, pedal steel guitar, fiddle & accordion and Steve Ede, drums and percussion, whilst Kristi Rose, Mark Andrew Miller and daughter Abbie Ringenberg provide harmony vocals. Other daughter Camille is credited, on one track, with piano and harmony vocal arrangement.
This album is more overtly based in country music than previous offerings, as may be gleaned through several of the artwork images, together with the liberal use of the reference to the simulant gem synonymous with the genre, both in the name of the album and with track titles such as 'Nashville Without Rhinestones', 'Stoned on Rhinestones'. These two songs, both written in 2017 during Jason's stint as Artist-in-Residence at Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park give thoughtful ruminations on the aforementioned changing role of Nashville and Country music. The former paints his vision of where the town/city is headed, and a pretty depressing picture it is too, 'The town has been corrupted its soul is now for sale, Nashville without rhinestones will be a perfect hell' an almost dystopian image, where 'out on the horizon I see a sinking ship, Filled with hillbilly ghosts on their final trip.' The song closes as he turns his back on this by seeking solace in playing old LPs from, 1963, 1953, 1943 … In contrast, the outright optimism within 'Stoned on Rhinestones' serves as a welcome counterpoint, 'People get hooked on all kinds of stuff, Lives get ruined and relationships rough…I know I'm nothing like that, I'm hooked on Hank and a Stetson hat'.
Whilst the quality of song-writing and musicianship is high and indeed thoroughly enjoyable across the piece, of the self-composed offerings, two in particular are worthy of mention. 'The Freedom Rides Weren't Free', the first single taken from the album, is a glorious celebratory paean to the Freedom Riders, the young Black and White activists who challenged the segregated bus systems in the US South of the early 1960s. Written immediately before the major unrest occurring in America over the summer of 2020, this is a poignant and timely tribute to those of Civil Rights Movement whom he considers true American heroes. Similarly moving is 'I Rode With Crazy Horse', which is loosely based on an old Lakota/Oglala Native American legend in which one of Crazy Horse's cousins rode and fought beside him through every battle, even to his death at Fort Robinson.
The four songs that he has chosen to cover have been carefully selected to represent different phases of American Country Music. However, at the risk of alienating my good friends in the Americana/Country community, to my ears Jason's versions of The Carter Family's 'The Storms Are On The Ocean' and the traditional Weslyan Easter hymn from the 1800s, 'Christ The Lord Is Risen Today', would not be out of place on an Ashley Hutchings Albion Band or Steeleye Span release, stunning tracks both. Similarly, his re-interpretations of Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Hank Williams Snr. songs are both from the top drawer too.
Sincere and honest, this is music not only with an integrity born of a lifetime of pioneering work, but also of a compelling vitality that, hopefully, whilst more than simply satiating the desire of Ringenberg adherents, will also attract a new, wider audience.