Earlier this year, Tara and I were in a Nashville bar, Robert’s Western World, sipping cokes and watching the resident covers act. We’d only been sat down for 30 seconds when a voice came from the stage: “Who’s your favourite country singer?” All eyes in the room turned to us. It was obviously the newcomers’ turn to request a song.
“Jason and the Scorchers?” asked Tara, hopefully. “Sorry, who?” came the reply. The name was repeated for clarity but it didn’t do any good – the guy on stage who prided himself on being able to play anything from country’s vast and rich catalogue of classics was stumped. To save us further embarrassment, a voice from the bar requested some Johnny Cash and everything was suddenly back on track.
With hindsight, as well as sticking a couple of dollars in the tip jar on the way out, I should’ve included a note answering that “Who?”, if only for the sake of the next weary traveller that stopped by hoping to catch, say, Harvest Moon or Shop It Around. In fact, I should’ve nipped over the road to Ernest Tubb’s and returned with a copy of the freshly reissued Still Standing CD. Next time, I’ll come prepared.
The fact that Jason Ringenberg is still filed under ‘cult’, even after 22 years and 15 albums – 10 of them with his pioneering country-rock band the Scorchers – must make him one of the best-kept secrets in country music. He used to joke about pledging to continue doing what he does while never earning substantial amounts of money – and making a huge success of it. It’s a great line but, if there’s even a smidgeon of truth in it, it’s a crying shame because Jason’s worth in his three chosen fields – singing, songwriting and performing – is off the scale. With just an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, the heels of his cowboy boots (great for percussion) and one of the most distinctive, affecting voices in both rock ‘n’ roll and country today, Jason is quite simply the finest live performer of his kind that I’ve ever seen.
It’s been a while since Jason’s played any UK shows. He was last in London in December 2002 for the Borderline’s Way Beyond Nashville festival, where he performed a short but oh so sweet set with the fantastic James Walbourne on guitar. This time, the Borderline gets the full 90-minute show – split into two halves with a 20-minute interval in between that allows Jason to meet, greet and sell merch to his fans (and sign most of it). With no crew on hand to man the merchandise table, Jason has employed the services for the night of one Ginger Wildheart, whom he calls his “merch bitch”. Ginger, of course, laps it up, jumping on stage in the interval with a boxful of CDs and talking up the goods like a market-stall pro.
It’s the same set-up (minus Ginger) a week later at Brighton’s Hanbury Ballroom – a friendly, candlelit venue on the outskirts of town. Jason even has a couple of T-shirts for sale here, which were missing from London as “the Scots bought all the T-shirts I had – every one of them. It’s damn cold up there.” The audience seems a tad quieter than London in terms of banter and catcalls, but their appreciation is just as rapturous when each song draws to a close.
The Jason Ringenberg live show is a future echo of the original honky-tonk spirit. With nothing planned except for his opening and closing salvos and a handful of must-plays, the set lists are genuinely spontaneous – they’re put together by hollered-out request with just a teensy bit of steering from Jason, who’ll ensure that you’re never more than two songs away from an up-tempo, heel-kicking number.
And when he’s not singing, he’s talking – about his experiences travelling, about life back home on the farm, about the songs he’s playing, about the state of the world and, in particular, the United States. And his humour never misses – there are more laughs at a Jason Ringenberg show than some sitcoms manage in six weeks. One tale that he’s been telling on this tour about a scary woman at a gig requesting a Carpenters cover has an entire song as a punchline, and it’s a joy to see his masterful sleight-of-hand introduction to his cover of the Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated catching people off guard (in London, a guy to my left jumps with shock when the first chord is struck).
And on a more serious note, there are some history lessons – such as the prefaces to Tuskegee Pride and Chief Joseph’s Last Dream, two songs from Jason’s new album that he seems particularly proud of. It’s the songs from this release, Empire Builders, that are the cornerstones of the sets on this tour. The new record is Jason’s first overtly political statement and, as such, he says it’s lost him a few Republican friends. It’s also encouraged some audience members at shows in the States to voice their disapproval, especially with Rebel Flag In Germany, a song that’s inspired some healthy debating among fans on the Internet, too. (The debate pivoted on the question: “Is Jason right to feel embarrassed by the flag?” Jason responded by posting a lengthy, considered and gracious reply/explanation on the Scorchers’ Reckless Country Soup mailing list.)
Five albums into his solo career and Jason has yet to repeat himself. On his first record, the often-overlooked One Foot In The Honky Tonk, his songs were furnished with a mild pop sheen, which worked surprisingly well; while his second album, Pocketful Of Soul, showcased a more rootsy, acoustic-led sound. While touring that album, he started to record a new one, All Over Creation, an eclectic collection of collaborations with friends from Steve Earle and BR549 to Tommy Womack and The Wildhearts. And then, in 2003, Farmer Jason appeared.
A Day At The Farm With Farmer Jason is a kids’ record in the best and truest sense of the term. Forget the Pro Tools-manufactured sex-o-pop that the major labels seem to be pushing to kids these days – Farmer Jason lets children act their age while still introducing them to some rock ‘n’ roll concepts with 11 catchy songs about guitar pickin’ chickens, Elvis-impersonating hogs, dancin’ doggies and cows that sing like Johnny Cash. It’s a record I’d be proud for my kids to listen to – if I had any.
Hang on a second – no kids? How the heck are Tara and I going to get into the afternoon Farmer Jason show in Brighton? I have visions of one of us taping shoes to our knees and shuffling in like ET, but it turns out that drastic measures aren’t necessary. Farmer Jason welcomes everyone – even curious grown-ups.
I have a few ideas about what to expect from a Farmer Jason show as I’ve read reports from the US, but I still have plenty of questions. Will it be loud? Will Jason be as lively as he is when he’s playing for adults? How will British kids react to the character? Will they know what a hog is and understand why the tractor is called John Deere? And, most importantly, am I entitled to a free glass of orange squash, or is that just for the little ‘uns?
I have all of the answers within a minute of the show starting. Yes, it’s loud. Yes, Farmer Jason’s lively, though unlike his ‘brother’ Jason he does leave the equipment and stage intact. British kids can jump, sing and deafen just as well as any others, and I have the tinnitus to prove it. Jason explains that a hog is a pig, and the kids are too busy shouting out the “Deere!” bits to care why the tractor’s called John. I don’t try the orange. C’mon, what do you take me for – some kind of squash-snatching monster?
My personal highlight is seeing a room full of kids doing the Doggie Dance – one lad down the front does a particularly impressive canine impression, waggling his hands behind his ears and leaping up and down like the doorbell has just rung. Jason’s unrestrained grin tells me he’s enjoying it as much as the kids are.
It’s fun to hear the Scorchers’ Help! There’s A Fire being turned into a family singalong, and seeing Jason writing a song with the kids is a joy to watch. The result, I Have A Lot Of Friends That Are Nice And Kind, rhymes ‘kind’ with ‘lime’ and, surreally, ‘blind’, and even gets an airing at Jason’s evening show. If ever there was a bootleg begging to be made, a compilation of these Farmer Jason co-writes is surely it.
The one memory from Brighton that’s top of my ‘keeper’ list, though, is hearing Jason play the aching Last Train To Memphis during the evening set. It’s not a song I’ve heard him play live before, but it’s one of my favourites and, I think, an underappreciated gem. Tara requests it and Jason obliges – well, eventually, after an admission that he can’t remember the second line and therefore can’t get past it (he also says it’s on A Pocketful Of Soul when it’s actually on All Over Creation – I feel that both are excusable offences, though, when you’ve got a back catalogue as expansive as Jason’s).
In the interval, I scribble out the first couple of verses on the back of a flyer, which Jason takes on stage for insurance. After another faltering start – he stumbles on that pesky second line again and nearly brings the house down – he sings it beautifully. Later, as I stroll into the night (having caught Last Train To Memphis, I need to catch the last train to London Victoria), I feel like I’ve just seen something I’ll be proud to tell my grandkids about – if I have any.
In summary, then – a warm, sunny afternoon in Nashville drinking ice-cold cokes, or a freezing, wet evening in Brighton trying to figure out bus routes?
There’s simply no contest when Jason Ringenberg’s in town.