Hailed as ‘The Godfather of Americana’, US roots rock musician Jason Ringenberg recently issued new solo LP ‘Rhinestoned’ to outstanding praise. Julie Cruickshank caught up with the alt. country pioneer to chat about the making of the album and formative influences.
Jason Ringenberg is the former frontman of Jason and the Scorchers, the alt-country pioneers who were instrumental in paving the way towards music genres Americana and cowpunk. His new solo album ‘Rhinestoned’, an entertaining mix of styles ranging from country to rock written and recorded during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, has been released to critical acclaim. Pennyblack caught up with him to chat about Nashville, The Incredible String Band, reading early American history, performing in the UK, and riding the trains with a Network Rail pass.
PB: Hello Jason, congratulations! ‘Rhinestoned’ is fantastic. It sounds great and I really like the variety of styles. Do you feel you will carry on in this mixed vein or are you moving more towards pure country?
JR: Thank you. I am quite proud of ‘Rhinestoned’. I have always been a hodge-podge artist, a load of this and a little of that. For certain though, the thread of pure classic country music does run through this album, and will always be a part of what I do.
PB: The gospel song you cover, ‘Christ the Lord Is Risen Today’, makes a sort of reflective interlude in the album. Do you think, whether subconsciously or not, you recorded this as a reaction to the tragic heavy Covid-19 death toll in the US?
JR: Subconsciously, yes. That song is at heart a profound statement of hope. I decided to record it after hearing my daughters sing it in our church choir.
PB: ‘Nashville Without Rhinestones’ is my favourite track. Will you be putting this out as a single?
JR: Thank you. It was the first song I wrote for the record. I finally succumbed to what all Nashville songwriters eventually do: write an “anti-Nashville” song! However, ‘Nashville Without Rhinestones’ is NOT about the music community or its music. The Nashville music community is as inspiring as ever. The song is about the relentless purge of Nashville’s history by the “money people”, most of whom are driven to tear our heritage to put up more tacky condos. It sickens me.
PB: You write that ‘I Rode With Crazy Horse’ came to you in a dream. This happens to a lot of songwriters - Paul McCartney woke up one morning with Let It Be almost complete in his head. Do songs in the main just occur to you, or do you have a general idea and then explore whether it will work or not?
JR: Most often, the main lyric idea and basic melody happen at once. In that song’s case, it all came at once, including all the lyrics. I woke up and sang it into my phone and then edited the stream of ideas later.
PB: Some of your lyrics made me think of the wordplay of Johnny Cash. Has he influenced you in any way?
JR: Any American country or rock ‘n roll singer worth his or her salt has been influenced by the Man in Black, whether they know it or not. In my case, I have always been especially influenced by Cash in terms of how he expresses spiritual themes in his music.
PB: Are you a great reader? Who are your favourite authors?
JR: Oh wow, that is a hard question to answer, and weirdly no one has ever asked me that! I do read all the time, these days mostly history. I am now finishing the bio ‘Tecumseh and the Prophet’ by Peter Cozzens. Like all post-European invasion Native American stories, it is profoundly sad. Another history author I love is Dr. Christopher Phillips whose book ‘The Rivers Ran Backwards’ is a must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War Border States.
Interestingly, I grew up with Chris in the small Midwestern town of Sheffield, Illinois. We were classmates from age five on, and attended the same church. There were 45 total students in our graduating class. We are lifelong friends and still regularly communicate. Another author friend of mine is Tommy Womack. His book ‘Cheese Chronicles, The True Story Of A Rock N Roll Band You Have Never Heard Of’ perfectly illustrates the realities of life in a rock band. If you read that book and still want to try your hand at music, you might have a shot. If it troubles or scares you, best try something else.
In terms of fiction, I was heavy into Flannery O’Connor when I wrote and recorded the first Jason and the Scorchers’ record ‘Fervor’. You can hear it in the lyrics. For poetry Carl Sandburg is my favourite poet. He came from the same Illinois background that I did. His words shoot straight into my soul.
PB: What are your fondest memories of playing here in the UK? Have you enjoyed visiting and playing here?
JR: I thoroughly enjoy performing concerts in the UK. You people seem to pull something extra out of me. When touring there as JR, I simply buy a rail pass and use trains to get everywhere in your lovely country. I LOVE sitting back and watching the British countryside roll by. I think my favourite UK show was the Jason and the Scorchers’ London Marquee show in 1984. We were starting to break in the UK and everyone seemed to be there that night, Bill Wyman, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, almost every music writer in London, on and on. One writer called it the best concert he had ever seen. I will always remember that one, but I love all my UK shows whether fronting The Scorchers, solo as Jason Ringenberg, or as my children’s music persona Farmer Jason (the TV series of which won Jason an Emmy – Ed).
PB: Are there any British bands you particularly admire, old or new?
JR: Hmm, that could take more space than we have here, but I am a fan of countless British bands, some you might find surprising. But to name a few in no particular order: The Incredible String Band, especially their ‘Wee Tam’ album with Licorice McKenchnie singing those fabulous high parts, Fairport Convention, Wildwood Kin, early to mid-period Bowie, Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group. Also, early Marianne Faithful, Roxy Music, The Sex Pistols, The Who pre-1974, Sunshine Delay, The Shires, Dan Britton, The Beatles’ ‘Help’ album. Guitarist James Walbourne who sat in with me at the Borderline once plus The Clash, The Faces, Graham Nash, mid-career Petula Clark, pre-73 Stones, the Wildhearts, Ginger Wildheart solo, on and on. You people can do some picking!
PB: Finally, there are many songs on ‘Rhinestoned’ which will sound wonderful live. Do you plan to take the album out on the road after the pandemic?
JR: I do plan to tour behind ‘Rhinestoned’, and certainly coming back to the UK is at the top of my list! Get your trains ready!!
PB: Thank you Jason, and good luck with the launch of Rhinestoned.
JR: Thanks right back at ya. I enjoyed doing this interview.
by Julie Cruickshank