Jason Ringenberg takes a historical and personal look at Nashville with "Rhinestoned"Photo by Scott Willis/Courtesy of Miss Jill PR
While the pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to the live performance industry, many artists have taken advantage of the forced downtime to focus on writing and recording new music. Even if it means sharing and merging audio files online or cautiously returning to a studio with fewer bodies around.
That’s how it was for Jason Ringenberg, whose new album Rhinestoned drops on March 5. It was a process that mostly involved just himself and producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist George Bradfute. Bradfute’s recording studio is in the basement of the former home of late “gentleman country crooner” Jim Reeves (“He’ll Have to Go,” “Four Walls”). Steve Ebe (drums), Fats Kaplin (steel guitar/fiddle), and Ringenberg’s own daughter Addie and Camille (vocals, piano) also pitched in.
“Well…you’re looking at someone wearing a mask, that’s very different. And then you’re wearing one yourself. Right off the bat, it just looks strange!” the 62-year-old singer/guitarist says about the experience from his home near Nashville. “And dealing with everything everyone has this year, yes it will affect your art.”
The initial concept of Rhinestoned was to explore Ringenberg’s relationship with the city and area he’s lived in since arriving in 1981 as an ambitious musician not knowing a soul.
And while the debate about what’s “authentic” country music has been raging since the introduction of the 1960’s string-drenched-but-hugely-popular “Countrypolitan” sound (and on Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” 45 years ago…and on George Strait and Alan Jackson’s “Murder on Music Row” 20 years ago), Ringenberg says his song “Nashville Without Rhinestones” is more about other changing aspects of the city as it becomes a “hot” destination, with all the gentrification that follows.
“I’m not sure there is a ‘real’ Nashville anymore. The one thing I am certain of, especially in that song, is that the city as a whole has just gone crazy with development. They’re just tearing up stuff and putting up these tacky condominiums all over,” he says. “That’s what I’m really protesting there. It’s really quite scary now. It’s almost impossible for a working person to actually live in the city.”
There are two particular Rhinestoned tracks that stand out, both with a genesis in Ringenberg’s love of history. The first one is his epic, his “Freebird” or “Stairway to Heaven,” a 6+ minute “I Rode with Crazy Horse.”
It’s written from the perspective of a cousin of the storied Native American leader and warrior who, according to Lakota/Oglala legend, rode and fought alongside Crazy Horse in all of his battles against both other tribes and white men. And who was with him when Crazy Horse was stabbed and killed at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1877, under mysterious circumstance by either a government guard or a fellow tribesman.
Ringenberg says much of the song came to him in a dream, and he made good use of the guitar and recorder he usually keeps by his bedside.
“I had been kicking around the idea of writing about Crazy Horse because he’s such a compelling character with all the legends and stories. We don’t even have a photo of the guy!” he says. “I heard the whole song in a dream and woke up half groggy and sung it right into the recorder. I shined it up and changed it later.”
Jason Ringenberg with his Framus guitar, the first one he ever bought, for $50 in 1976.
Photo by Scott Willis/Courtesy of Miss Jill PR
Another song, “The Freedom Rides Weren’t Free,” address the Freedom Rides that began in 1961 in which both black and white mostly college students boarded buses for destinations in the Deep South to promote civil liberties, voting rights, and education among local Black populations. The Riders were routinely harassed, beaten, and even murdered by enraged white locals and sometimes complicit law enforcement and government authorities.
“I was a history nerd and I never really knew about the civil rights era here in Nashville,” Ringenberg says. “A lot of the riders were just a bunch of college kids from Fisk and Meherry [Universities]. When I learned that, I wanted to write a song about it.”
Many of the original songs on both Rhinestoned and its 2018 predecessor Stand Tall were written while Ringenberg was the Artist-in-Residence for a month at the Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park. It was an opportunity that he greatly appreciated.
“Had I not done that program, I don’t think [those records] would have ever happened. I’m at an age where I’ve got responsibilities and family stuff and kids in college. And making music doesn’t make a lot of money! So going out there for a month and doing nothing but hike and climb mountains and writing and seeing the Sequoias freed up the muses to work.”
In addition to his own tunes on the record, there are some carefully chosen covers. Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” the Carter Family’s “The Storms Are On the Ocean,” the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Time Warp,” and a very rocked-up version of the 1739 standard religious hymn “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Ringenberg heard when his daughters performed in their church choir.
Going back to the 1980s, Ringenberg was the front man for Jason and the Scorchers. The group enjoyed years of critical – if not commercial – acclaim as part of the No Depression/Cowpunk/Alt Country/Americana/Roots scene. When asked which of those terms he felt best described their sound, the answer is surprising.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before!” he laughs. “Labeling Jason and the Scorchers was always so difficult. We didn’t even know ourselves! It was a constant battle in the band. Were we country or rock or roots? We couldn’t figure it out. But I suppose it would be 'Country Rock and Roll,' because we had a punk base.”
Ringenberg continued to alternate a solo career with the band’s until the latter called it quits in 2008. He’s also carved out a third path as “Farmer Jason,” writing and recording children’s music.
Interestingly, Ringenberg was originally more of a bluegrass/folkie guy playing guitar, harmonica, and banjo. That was until a fateful night in 1980 when, as a student at Southern Illinois University, he saw a different path after attending a show by the Ramones in—of all places—the basement cafeteria of a dorm on campus.
“They were the first real rock and roll band I ever saw. At Southern Illinois, most of the students were good ol’ boys from the hills of Kentucky and Illinois. For that show, all the misfits of the area and creative people showed up, whereas in every other bar, they’d get beat up for looking like they did,” he remembers. “It was packed with all these crazy people! I was right up front between Joey and Dee Dee, and it changed my life. I had a bolo tie on and I think I was wearing a straw hat!”
Later, Jason and the Scorchers would open up for the Ramones during a tour of Texas, though a Houston date was not included. Ringenberg calls The Bruddahs “friendly, down to earth, and supportive.” Even to the point where they would let he and the Scorchers eat off their rider food in the dressing room. Dee Dee Ramone would give them extra guitar strings when they couldn’t afford new ones.
As for Houston, Ringenberg has fond memories of playing venues like Rockefeller’s and Fitzgerald’s, and says that the Bayou City also gave them crucial support lacking in the rest of the Lone Star State.
“Houston was one of the best Jason and the Scorchers cities to play, anywhere. We did great business there,” he says. “Folks always turned up who got our music. And that wasn’t the case in the rest of Texas, which was not a good market for us. I have a real soft spot for the city.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.