Jason Ringenberg has lived in or near Nashville since 1981, but he's hardly a member of the city's country-music establishment. "I feel like an outsider in that circle," he says from his farm west of town. "But I feel like the consummate insider in the left-of-center crowd."
Now in his forties, Ringenberg has been called -- for good reason -- the godfather of alternative country, a tag that pleases the singer very much. "I do feel that way," he says. "I'm actually quite proud of that." (Gram Parsons, he is quick to point out, is the movement's true patron saint.)
Ringenberg and his band, the Scorchers, were among the first to bring a hard-rock sensibility to country music, paving the way for such groups as Uncle Tupelo, the Blood Oranges, the Bottle Rockets and Neko Case and her Boyfriends. These days, it's old hat to think of punk and country as two sides of the same coin, but the concept was downright radical in Nashville in the early '80s.
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"We did it at a time when something like that could elicit violence from people," Ringenberg says. "And it did. There were plenty of people who wanted to kill us."
When Ringenberg, a farm boy from Illinois who grew up listening to country music and rock and roll, first arrived in Nashville, the city was in its so-called Urban Cowboy phase, and the line between pop and country had all but disappeared. (The 1981 Grammy Award for best country song went to Dolly Parton for her huge crossover hit "9 to 5.")
"But I felt a real latent energy in the town," Ringenberg recalls. "There were a lot of people who wanted to do something different than Music Row country. But at that point, it was rock and roll. They weren't thinking in terms of different country; they were thinking in terms of rock. And into that I stepped, with some country roots. So it was kind of an interesting chemistry. I didn't reject Nashville in its entirety, which most of the punk bands in Nashville did at the time. They thought country was completely stupid. They wanted nothing to do with it. Whereas I could understand it: I understood the roots of it and how cool it was. I just didn't like a certain segment of it."
Just after he got to town, Ringenberg hooked up with a young musician named Jack Emerson -- now co-owner, with Steve Earle, of E-Square Records -- and started playing gigs. "Three weeks later, we did a show opening for Carl Perkins, and then we opened for REM," Ringenberg says. "[Guitarist] Warner Hodges and [bassist] Jeff Johnson saw the band and said, 'We want in on this.' They jumped in, brought in [drummer] Perry Baggs, and by New Year's, we were selling out rooms, and we had a record out in January. It happened really, really fast."
The Scorchers' first record was a four-song, independently produced EP titled Reckless Country Soul. A year later they put out Fervor, a six-song EP that contained a searing version of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and a twangy Ringenberg/Johnson original, "Hot Nights in Georgia." The resulting buzz led to a record deal with EMI, which reissued Fervor and released the band's first full-length disc, Lost & Found, in 1985. (Seventeen years later, it remains the Scorchers' high-water mark.)
"One night we would open for the Circle Jerks in Atlanta," Ringenberg says, "and the next night we would have William Lee Golden [of the Oak Ridge Boys] up on stage singing with us in Nashville. Those kinds of things would happen all the time. We would hang out one night with [Sex Pistols guitarist] Steve Jones and the next night with Rodney Crowell. Those were crazy times."
The Scorchers, always more of a critical than a commercial success, recorded two more albums, including 1986's Still Standing and 1989's Thunder & Fire. Then they went their separate ways -- the result, according to an official biography posted on Ringenberg's Web site (jasonringenberg.com), of "internal disputes, record label complications and substance abuse."
In 1992, Ringenberg -- billing himself simply as "Jason" -- took a stab at mainstream country with a misguided (and little heard) album called One Foot in the Honky Tonk. ("It was a nice place to visit," he said later, "but I didn't really belong in the commercial country world.") Two years later, just as the alt-country movement was gaining steam, the Scorchers reunited and found themselves playing for a new generation of fans. But after releasing several more acclaimed albums, the band more or less called it quits. Shamefully, most of the Scorchers' albums are now out of print. That includes Fervor, Lost & Found, and a wonderful 1992 compilation for Capitol that recently fetched $67 on eBay. The label may be getting the message: This month, it is reissuing Still Standing with several bonus tracks.
Following the Scorchers' unofficial split, Ringenberg, who had always wanted to record an acoustic album, retreated to his five-acre spread, where he lives with his wife, Suzy, and their two daughters, and wrote a batch of songs about family, faith and farm life. "I'd never really been able to get that personal," he says, "because I'd been in a band all my life."
Released in 2000 on Ringenberg's own Courageous Chicken label, A Pocketful of Soul opens with the sound of the wind whipping across the plains, followed by Ringenberg's endearingly heartfelt voice wailing, "Oh, lonesome prairie, I know it's time/To go and see you and free my mind/Those fields of green are calling me/Oh, lonesome prairie eternally." The homespun album garnered strong reviews, ending up on a number of critics' best-of lists. Peter Cooper, writing in the Tennessean, raved, "Jason Ringenberg is Nashville's most electrifying performer, but his most enduring attribute -- songwriting -- is also his most criminally overlooked."
"That was a complete surprise to me, how well it did," Ringenberg says. "I had absolutely no expectations. I originally recorded that record just for my fans and friends. I never intended for it to launch another career, which is pretty much what it did."
Ringenberg ended up touring extensively behind A Pocketful of Soul, "way more than I expected to," he says. Traveling alone with just an acoustic guitar, he found himself jamming with a number of folks on the road, something he'd never really done before. He got ready to record again. "It seemed only natural to carry that convivial spirit onto the new recording," he says, referring to All Over Creation, released in August.
For the album, on Chapel Hill-based Yep Roc Records, Ringenberg enlisted help from some of his left-of-center musical buddies, including Earle, Paul Burch, Tommy Womack, Kristi Rose, Todd Snider, the Wildhearts, Lambchop, Swan Dive and others. Unlike the folkier Pocketful of Soul, All Over Creation is a stylistic grab bag, with hard country ("I Dreamed My Baby Came Home"), exuberant rockabilly ("Honky Tonk Maniac From Mars"), story songs ("Bible and a Gun 1863"), wistful pop ("Camille," an ode to one of his daughters), historical ballads ("Erin's Seed"), and Scorchers-esque rock and roll ("Too High to See"). Backed by retro honky-tonkers BR549, Ringenberg even does a surprisingly straight version of Loretta Lynn's classic "Don't Come Home A Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)."
"The biggest challenge was to get the sequencing right," Ringenberg says of the album. "I tried to kind of make the songs flow into one another."
The singer-songwriter now spends much of his time on the road, often in Europe, where he has a strong following and where out-of-the-mainstream country music does quite well. "They really, as a whole, just don't understand why anyone would like Garth Brooks," says Ringenberg, who, beginning in October, will spend nearly six months on the other side of the Atlantic. (Before leaving, he'll host the first Americana Awards Show in Nashville, which is sponsored by the three-year-old Americana Music Association.)
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As for the Scorchers, Ringenberg isn't quite ready to pronounce the group dead, but he concedes that they have no plans at the moment to get back together. Bassist Johnson left for good in 1998, and drummer Baggs recently threw in the towel. "I'm still psychologically reeling from Perry being gone," Ringenberg says. "We've done a few shows without him, and we rock, but replacing Perry is much more difficult than replacing Jeff. I don't know that we'll recover from that."
Meanwhile, Ringenberg seems quite happy as a solo artist. For his live shows, he likes to mix up old Scorchers numbers, newer songs and diverse covers, like Gram Parsons's "In My Hour of Darkness," Jimmie Rodgers's "Hobo Bill's Last Ride" and REM's "Rockville."
"It's an absolute hoot," he says. "I'm loving every minute of it. I can do things like go to Denver and play with another band." (For his Colorado gigs, Ringenberg will be backed by Marty Jones and the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys.)
Several years ago, a curator at the Country Music Hall of Fame asked Ringenberg if he would lend his Fervor-era Scorchers stage outfit to be displayed among the museum's stunning collection of artifacts. "I didn't appreciate it at the time," he says, "but now, not a week goes by that a friend or someone in the music world will call and say, 'I saw your outfit in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and it freaked me out!' My friend Paul Burch said, 'Man, that brought me to tears. Here was one of our guys -- here!' It really has validated what we did."