For an artist who has been hailed as ‘The Godfather Of Americana’ Jason Ringenberg, who in various guises has released over twenty albums, still hasn’t received the acclaim he rightly deserves in some territories. ‘Stand Tall’ is Jason’s sixth solo album released under his own name. Born and raised on an Illinois hog farm he relocated to Nashville in 1981 to try to make his mark by taking American roots music into the modern age. In the process, he invented what is sometimes termed ‘Cowpunk’ by forming Jason and The Scorchers, and he did what he set out to do although there are still many music lovers yet to discover this exceptional musician. Maybe if his name doesn’t mean anything yet you should ask small children about Farmer Jason, another successful musical project that Ringenberg created.
On reading the opening lines of the booklet that comes with ‘Stand Tall’, Ringenberg’s follow-up to 2004’s ‘Empire Builders’, a wave of sadness hits the reader. Ringenberg admits that a few years ago he was resigned to the fact that his days as a recording artist were numbered; “I didn’t feel there was the internal drive or external demand to maintain a recording career in this frenzied, internet-driven music world.” Ringenberg goes on to explain that he was quite happy to keep performing Farmer Jason shows and maintain his farming operation. It would have been the music world’s loss, although Ringenberg’s work as Farmer Jason has to be commended. But luckily and unexpectedly a ranger at Sequoia National Park contacted Ringenberg about taking part in their artist-in- residency program. Spending a month in a mountain cabin, exploring the park trails, performing at concerts in the park and being given the time to write songs about any subject, Ringenberg jumped at the chance. Thankfully, as it’s not only given us a new set of songs and a resulting album from this musical pioneer, it’s also confirmation that Ringenberg has lost none of his passion for making relevant, inspiring and at times uniquely humorous music.
Of the eleven tracks on ‘Stand Tall’ seven are new Ringenberg originals (one a co-write with Arty Hill) and the remaining Ringenberg’s versions of other artists’ songs, including a particularly affecting cover of Dylan’s ‘Farewell Angelina’ that closes the album.
Apart from the potted history about the roots of how the album came into being, Ringenberg also adds a short introduction about each song in the sleeve notes. They make for compelling reading and add much to the enjoyment of each song. Given that Ringenberg is known for being lyrically smart, it’s a surprise that ‘Stand Tall’ opens with an instrumental, and one that Ringenberg confesses that he spent more time recording than any other recording in his career. But it paid off; the goal was to capture the ‘grand drama’ of his Sequoia residency and this instrumental really does transport the listener to, if not the place Ringenberg had in mind, to an imaginary place you would really like to spend time in, a place to just get lost in your thoughts and maybe find yourself once more. With a Western vibe it conjures up many images. It’s an outstanding piece of work.
But as soon as the second song, ‘Lookin’ Back Blues’, a co-write with Arty Hill who wrote the opening lines of “I’m flying down the highway of my mind/I see you in the rear view/I wish I’d never left you behind”, we are back in familiar Ringenberg country/punk territory. As with most of Ringenberg’s work in this field, it sounds like the band were having a great time recording the song and it shines through.
Although written under the base of the Colonel Charles Young tree in the park, ‘God Bless the Ramones’ has little to do with the Sequoia National Park; it recalls the time Jason and The Scorchers opened for the Ramones in 1982 across Texas. Blessed with his usual humorous lyrics the song is a highlight on the album; it sounds exactly like you’d expect Jason and The Scorchers covering the Ramones to. “Now everyone loves the Ramones/With posters of them in their homes/And that T-shirt bankers wear, on weekends when they drink and dare”. It’s classic Ringenberg and worth the price of admission alone.
Jimmie Rodger’s ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’ finds Ringenberg in, unsurprisingly, classic country mode. As Ringenberg explains, the song was cut live to capture the moment and it’s a remarkable performance. Daniel Tejada is credited as playing atmospheric guitar and who’s to argue with that after listening to the song. It is another breathtaking performance. The inspiration for the disenchanted soldier’s tale of the following ‘I’m Walking Home’ has a neat connection to the previous song; Ringenberg wrote the song driving to Bristol, Virginia, Bristol being the place where Rodgers recorded the first of his classic songs.
‘Here in the Sequoias’ is a beautiful tribute to the place where Ringenberg’s journey for this album started. Shorn of any of his humourous lyrics the words really do conjure up the beauty and serenity of this place that will surely have a special place in Ringenberg’s heart forever. The closing harmony vocals from Kathy Livingston and Beth Koehler sound like angels floating above the trees.
A version of ‘Many Happy Hangovers to You’, a song made famous by country artist Jean Shepard, wasn’t really intended for this album but Ringenberg felt the production and playing were so good that it deserved a place on the record and he wasn’t wrong. Lacing the country classic with his trademark take on the genre proves another success.
To think that if it had not been for that contact from Sequoia National Park this album would never have seen the light of day and, even more frightening, we might not have seen another Jason Ringenberg album at all. While we can all appreciate where Ringenberg was coming from with his thoughts on this “internet-driven music world” that’s also the very reason why we need musicians like Ringenberg to still make albums. Keep on Standing Tall, Mr. Ringenberg. The music world needs you.
by Malcolm Carter