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Jason Ringenberg's Rainbow Stew

Listening to the upcoming Jason Ringenberg solo career retrospective Best Tracks and Side Tracks is like waking up in a land where the Bubble Up is free and there's an all-day feast of rainbow stew: The music seems sparkling and too good to be true, and yet it's still got one foot in a slow-moving freight running past a hobo jungle somewhere down around Carbondale. That combination of punk rock exuberance and social consciousness and deep country sorrow, which has marked Ringenberg's career since the earliest Jason & the Scorchers tracks, is still abundantly evident on this Yep Roc Records compilation, which mostly covers his post-2000 solo records.

jason.jpgRingenberg gets a lot of credit as probably the originator of so-called cowpunk and as a crucial pioneer in alternative country music. And you know what? He deserves all of that credit and much, much more. He's one artist from the '80s who came in with an exciting new sound and never abandoned his integrity once the major labels came a-calling.

Of course, that resulted in a shortened time atop the heap. The Scorchers, after helping to lay the groundwork for the total re-imagining of roots rock that would could come in the mid-'90s, blew up in 1989 after the pressures of dealing with the demands of the rock 'n' roll fast lane got to be too much. Ringenberg says the Scorchers had to spend so much time trying to break down the barriers in Nashville between rock and country music that it drained him and the rest of band. Being the first was bad timing, as it turned out. The true pioneers are rarely recognized.

Ringenberg was advised by Bob Dylan as the Scorchers were breaking up to concentrate his future work on his country roots and drop the arena-rock crunch of the Scorchers, and that's more or less what he's been up to ever since. In the late '90s, the Scorchers reunited and toured extensively, deservedly cashing in somewhat on what they had wrought by establishing alt-country as a legitimate genre. But, especially since 2000, Ringenberg has been a solo guitar-slinger, obsessively touring, writing, and wringing out a living to support his family in Nashville.

On the two-disc Best Tracks and Side Tracks, it's the solo Ringenberg, who in his late forties is more reflective and less bombastic, that emerges here. The crucial songs on this retrospective come from the LPs A Pocketful of Soul (2000), All Over Creation (2002) and Empire Builders (2004). Listening to the best of these albums, you realize that although he's toned down the fiery wild man that helped make the Scorchers one of the best live band of the '80s, he's also now writing songs that are more emotional and heartfelt and, really, more satisfying than ever, both musically and lyrically.

On "Tuskegee Pride" from Empire Builders, for example, he sings a country-rock dirge about the grandson of a slave who volunteers for a segregated army to fight Hitler, and explains to a younger generation how he became a fighter pilot and suffered horrible burns for a country in which he still wasn't free. And on "Chief Joseph's Last Dream," Ringenberg uses a spare, haunting acoustic ballad to recount how the great Nez Pierce chief foresaw the doom of his people, a coming time when the "white devouring beast" would destroy his nation:

Chief Joseph's last dream before he passed away
On the God-forsaken Oklahoma day
He saw a purple sunrise through the mountain mist
He felt his first wife give him a perfect holy kiss

Her face was shining brilliant in a sky of blue
And her smile told him he had no more to lose

Another stand-out in the same vein is from All Over Creation, an album in which he teamed with different guest collaborators on each song. On "A Bible and a Gun," he does a duet with Steve Earle in which they sing about not being able to "shake the anger" that keeps them on the road through "this world of woe with a Bible and a gun," as claps of thunder echo in the background.

But since this is Jason Ringenberg, it's not all gloom and doom here. The solo years have also produced some great uptempo, feel-good numbers as well. One such is from his his alter ego Farmer Jason, where he shows a completely different side as a . . . gulp . . . children's songwriter! His most recent album was last year's Farmer Jason's Rockin' In the Forest, in which he unveiled a collection of clever kids songs built around animal characters. "Punk Rock Skunk" tells the story of a lovable critter who sings,

I have a leather jacket, my jeans are full of holes
If I lived in England, I'd be on the dole
Today I told the barber I wanted a Mohawk
He was so freaked out, he couldn't even talk

I'm a punk, I'm a punk,
I'm a punk, I'm a punk, I'm a punk rock skunk

For hardcore Ringenberg fans, there's also plenty of interesting new stuff. The first two songs on Disc One are in that category: "Shop It Around," one of the first breakthrough Scorchers songs from their 1984 Lost and Found LP, is given an exciting new treatment; and "The Life of the Party," from his generally dissed first solo record made right after the Scorchers' break-up, One Foot In the Honky Tonk, is reworked into a all-stops-out rocking twangfest. Lovely.

And this is not even to mention the 10-song bonus CD called Sidetracks, which includes such rarities as the new song "The Sailor's Eyes," which Ringenberg says is most likely about his years with the Scorchers; "Jimmie Rogers' Last Blue Yodel," which he cut with the Wildhearts; and a weepy country version of "Cappuccino Rosie."

Indeed, Jason fans, your Bubble Up with bubbleth over right into your lap.

*

From Roky Erickson and the Detroit Cobras to The Lounge Axis of Evil and The Beachwood Country All-Stars, the Root Cellar is chock full of good stuff!



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Posted on December 24, 2007


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