After nearly 19 years fronting the pioneering alternative-country group Jason and the Scorchers, Jason Ringenberg finds himself in rarefied quarters: He’s now a record company mogul.
Well, sort of.
The Illinois native, now living on a farm outside Nashville with his wife and their daughter, released his engaging solo acoustic debut album, “A Pocketful of Soul,” on Aug. 29 on his own Courageous Chicken label.
Ringenberg is getting right into the swing of being a label owner.
“I tell people off all the time and fire people left and right,” he said recently, with a knowing glance. “I screw over artists every chance I get.” Joking aside, Ringenberg felt the time was right to do something outside the Scorchers. The group hasn’t officially disbanded (they occasionally reunite for festivals), but the writing was there on the wall.
“I’m pretty into the musical direction I’m taking now and I had to take that alone, there’s no way I could do that with the band,” he said. “Originally, I was just writing a few songs just to keep the musical juices flowing. After the Scorchers’ live album (in 1998), it was a closing point, and I had a new baby and I was working regular jobs, but I wanted to keep my interest in music going, so I just wrote songs for the fun of it, like I wrote one for my wife and one for our daughter. I also wrote one about growing up in the Illinois prairie, and pretty soon I had seven or eight pretty good songs and I started to think what to do with them.
“Even recording it, I decided I was just going to have fun and not worry about what I was going to do with it afterwards. I hung out with a friend in this old Victorian house, in his studio in the living room and cut some tracks. When I had it done, a lot of people would listen to it and say I should form my own record company because I’ve been in the business so long and giving everyone else the money. Before I knew it, I was a record company mogul.”
With the Scorchers, Ringenberg was tightly wound, a streak of punk and hard rock running through his veins. On “A Pocketful of Soul,” he revisits his tender, spiritual roots growing up in rural Illinois, punctuated by the ode “Oh Lonesome Prairie.”
One of the finer cuts, “Last of the Neon Cowboys,” co-written by Kevin Welch, takes him back to when he first moved to Nashville in 1980.
“There’s a lot of personal things in there and some third-person stuff, remembering when I first came to Nashville,” he said. “It was such a backwater little town, but there were these old country and western singers that used to hang around all these bars singing for tips.
“It’s like a different town altogether now. The whole downtown area has been renovated and remodeled and tourist-ized. There’s pro football here now and all different kinds of music happening here. It really was a backwater town when I came here in the early ’80s; you know, it wasn’t the third coast, it was more like the 12th coast or more like a lake in the middle of a desert. It wasn’t even a coast.”
In the lag time between leaving the Scorchers and recording his first album, Ringenberg kept busy by doing carpentry work. Some who hired him knew who he was, others had no clue of his musical past.
“It’s been an interesting life I’ve led, because I’m not famous by any stretch, but there’s a certain amount of people out there who know who I am,” he said. “Sometimes they look at me kind of funny, like ‘Why are you doing this? Aren’t you a rich rock star?’ This is by choice; I probably could have gutted it out, but it would’ve meant taking some bad gigs. I try at this point in my life to keep music a sacred thing, keeping it pure and not polluted.”
The Scorchers were everything Nashville’s Music Row is not when they came out of left field in 1981, but they definitely made their mark. Their landmark 1983 LP, “Fervor,” is featured on “Jimmy Guterman’s Rolling Stone Guide to the 100 Greatest Rock and Roll Records” and “The Country Music Association’s 100 Greatest Country Records.”
Their popularity extended all the way to England, where the group’s 1984 appearance at London’s Marquee Club was called “one of the Top Five gigs of all time” by New Musical Express.
“The band in the mid-’80s was one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll bands on the planet,” Ringenberg said. “There’s no question about that; it just had it … not every night, but on the right nights, man, that was a lethal band. That night was one of them, the high point of what we were doing in England. We were on the covers of several big magazines over there; here we were playing at the Marquee Club, and Bill Wyman was there that night and Elvis Costello. It was heavy, and we just delivered.”
Ringenberg is still delivering. “A Pocketful of Soul” won’t crack the charts, but it’s already a success in his eyes.
“Frankly, when I first brought it home and played it for (daughter) Addie and my wife, just seeing Addie dancing around the room singing ‘For Addie Rose …,’ that’s enough for me,” he said. “Everything past that is pretty much gravy.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I believe it was ‘John Denver’s Greatest Hits’ on eight-track tape. He had a lot of great records. It must’ve been hard to be one of the biggest recording artists in the world to essentially becoming a joke in most people’s eyes in the ’80s and ’90s.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Pure Prairie League in 1977. Talk about some records, the Daredevils had some cool ones … ‘It’ll Shine When It Shines,’ ‘Men From Earth.’ I remember talking with Jerry Moss at A&M; he was pretty involved with them. He said he got them all together and said, ‘Give me one year of your life and I’ll make you superstars. I can make you the new Eagles.’ They said, ‘Well, I got farmin’ to do. My wife’s had a baby, my cow’s sick.’ He said he’s always regretted that he couldn’t talk those guys into going for the brass ring.”
THE LAST CD I BOUGHT: “I bought it for my wife, the last Cake record, the one with ‘Never There.’ I just love their trumpet player; he’s kind of off key, but still he’s good.”
BWF (before we forget): Catch up with Jason Ringenberg on the Web @ www.jasonringenberg.com. … The Jason Ringenberg album discography – Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, “Reckless Country Soul” EP (Praxis, 1982); “Fervor” (1983); Jason and the Scorchers, “Fervor” expanded version (EMI, 1984); “Lost and Found” (1985); “Still Standing” (1986); “Thunder and Fire” (A&M, 1989); “One Foot in the Honkytonk” (Capitol, 1992); “A Blazing Grace” (Mammoth, 1995); “Clear Impetuous Morning” (1996); “Midnight Roads and Stages Seen” live (1998); Jason Ringenberg, “A Pocketful of Soul” (Courageous Chicken, 2000).