Standing Tall

A certified rock star, whose stage apparel and song lists hang in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, graced Johnson City’s Down Home Saturday night on February 8th to promote Stand Tall, an homage to Jason and the Scorcher’s 1996 release Still Standing.

Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.

The owner of this famous pickin’ parlor – Ed Snodderly – is also honored inside the CMHOF, lyrics to his “Diamond Stream” hanging prominently near the rock star’s regalia. Don’t know Ed? Perhaps you saw him at the movies playing the “crazy fiddler” in the Cohen Brother’s classic O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

Ed Snodderly, Village Idiot, O Brother, Whereart Thou?

And here’s the kicker:  James “Jason” Ringenberg grew up on the neighboring hog farm outside Sheffield, Illinois, in the center of America’s heartland, graduating in 1977 from Western High School with my brother, also named Jim.

“Jason” – his middle name – wandered up and down the Rock Island Line south of his home, jawing Bob Dylan tunes on the harmonica to the beat of ground-shaking freight trains, getting the music down into his DNA … while the rest of us drank beer and drove too fast.

After strumming a guitar and singing a self-penned valedictory “speech” to his high school classmates, Jason slipped down to Carbondale, Illinois to earn a bachelor’s degree (with a minor in history) and to soak up the punk vibe sweeping small clubs in the late ’70s.

In 1981, Ringenberg moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he soon formed Jason and the Scorchers with Warner Hodges, Jeff Johnson, and Perry Baggs.[1] Their potent mix of punk rock and country gained them fans around the world.[1] In the words of Rolling Stone they "singlehandedly re-wrote the history of rock'n'roll in the South". They won critical approval with the release of successful albums and energetic live performances.[3] -- Wikipedia
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.
Jason Ringenberg, 8 February 2020, The Down Home, Johnson City, TN.

Seriously, there’s a reason for such longevity.

Way back in 1985 I enjoyed my first international trip to the British Isles — I’d paid for college myself through a series of part-time jobs — and was finally debt-free at age twenty-eight and able to travel. Luckily,  Jason and the Scorchers were playing an Independence Day bill at the Electric Ballroom in London while I was there.

So I witnessed several hundred British youth bouncing off the walls and waving Rebel flags to “Harvest Moon” – a song recalling our Midwestern youth.

Harvest Moon, shine on down
The chill of the air wakes the ghosts of the ground.
Northern wind, I hear your voice,
But killing frost takes all hope of choice.

The sight of all those kids inflamed and jamming to the boy next door raised my hackles, as the memory still does. Here’s an article claiming Jason and the Scorchers to be the greatest rock band in the world at the time I saw them.

Ironically, my first jet flight may have been my last.

While researching this story I discovered the 1985 Air India ticket that got me there. The plane behind us went down killing 329. Terrorists tried to put the bomb on our plane, but couldn’t get it done. They succeeded the following week. We happened to be in Ireland then, riding bicycles near Dingle and hearing depth charges going off as workers tried to locate the 747 on the bottom of the Irish Sea.

Air India Ticket, 1985.
Air India Ticket, 1985.

At the same time Jason rocked the Electric Ballroom, Bruce Springsteen enjoyed seeing his image – the iconic Telecaster draped across his back for the Born in the USA album – draped upon buildings in Piccadilly Circus, while Dire Straits filled Wembley Stadium.

I went backstage, met the band, shook Jason’s hand, and noticed Ringenberg had no interest in partying like his bandmates, obvious professionals.  Jason — the eternal designated driver — kept the guys together as long as possible.  The last tour (2010) featured two original members — Jason and Warner Hodges — still standing.

The last time we talked was at a classmate’s memorial, and although Jason had aged like the rest of us, the family genetics, a harmonious healthy lifestyle, and calm domestic life revealed a wrinkle-free face marked only by laugh lines and a perpetual grin.

Jason and I aren’t close, and honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the music, though I’m fond of O Lonesome Prairie, as corny as it is.  Golden Ball and Chain is a killer rock and roll thunder bomb, indeed.  But Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, and the mailman from Crystal Lake, Illinois – John Prine – do it for me.

Surprisingly, Jason reminds me of Porter Wagner, especially his sense of humor, body shape, and wardrobe.

"Imagine introducing into this atmosphere a lanky hick from an Illinois pig farm who wore a goofy faux-leopard cowboy hat and shiny fringed shirts that made him look like Porter Wagoner on mescaline, a guy who whipped his body around as furiously as he did his microphone cord," wrote Mansfield. "Back him with three of the town's most notorious rockers," and that was Jason & the Scorchers.  --  Index of American Biographies

I saw Porter Wagoner once, hosting the Opry to a packed show at the Ryman, and witnessed a bus-load of Japanese pressing the stage, looking directly up into the stage lights.

“How do my nose hairs look tonight, folks?” he cackled.  “Long enough for ye?”

Jason’s three years younger than I, and hog farmers usually don’t hang out with hog farmers due to the smell.  Two nice-looking farm girls living south of us were good friends, but they resided on the Hog Farm from Hell with thousands of confined porkers.  Made our two-hundred-fifty outdoor rangers smell like roses, so I never went over much.  When I did, we’d laugh at rich Chicago folks driving by with handkerchiefs draped over their faces.

Olfactory fatigue is God’s gift to the hog farmer.

One of my favorite images of Jason was on a summer day in my sixteenth year after I bought a Gibson SG Junior and a Fender Princeton amp. Exactly two minutes after I hit the first power chord, there he was, standing in front of me asking about the guitar – his house a half-mile away.


I certainly admire Jason’s genuineness, his exceptional energyif we could harness that left leg, whole cities could remain off the power grid – the truth inside his lyrics, and the passion he brings to every show, no matter the size or location.

There were about thirty at the Down Home Saturday night, all rabid fans. They asked him to play obscure songs only true admirers would recall.  At the break, Jason sat down at our table to swap news. A polite word for gossip.

“The word is your mom is driving around town twenty miles an hour while reading the Bible,” I said, sheepishly.  Felt the blood leap up into my face.

Passing fake news is a Mark of the Devil these days.

A true hero of Sheffield, Jason earned it by exemplifying Midwestern values, kindness, humility and a perpetually positive attitude.  His mother, ninety-one this year, still drives to town for groceries and warms your heart with friendly hugs every time you see her. The intelligence flashing in her eyes mirrors Jason’s, smiling eyes perpetually admiring God’s handiwork, grateful eyes pondering the blessings and grace that make this life possible to navigate.

“That’s a rumor,” said Jason.  “She got picked up for driving too slowly and not knowing what to say, she held up a Bible that was lying on the passenger seat.”

Long pause.  Then wife Lana cut in, trying to save my trash face:

“I grew up on a small farm near Sneedville, Tennessee.  If nothing’s happening, folks make stuff up to fill the void.  Exaggeration is the name of the game.  Storytelling never ends.”

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping. 

One day you’re a teen power-chording a new amp on the front porch, the next day you’re watching the neighbor in his heyday wowing London, and then suddenly you’re receiving social security checks and the graying troubadour from across Route 6 croons to your wife in a small room of adoring fans while she marvels at human connections transcending space and time, connections threading through us from cradle to grave.

Which is something to acknowledge and cherish.

While we’re still standing.

 


Videos from The Down Home, 8 February 2020, Jason Ringenberg, Stand Tall tour.
Absolutely Sweet Marie
Farewell Angelina
God Bless the Ramones
If Money TalksJohn Muir Stood Here
Mother of Earth (Jason Ringenberg)
Mother of Earth (The Gun Club)
The Price of Progress
The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug (Sheffield, Illinois, Brother’s Pub, 2014)

 

Midwestern Lake Tour: Superior, Michigan, Dale Hollow (Fall 2017)

Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.

Near my hometown of Sheffield, Illinois
Western Illinois in late August

Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.

Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.

31 August 17

The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – where U.S. Grant briefly resided – is usually delightful:  endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills  snaking beside the Mississippi River.

But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.

Ironically, Ron Chernow (author of Hamilton) recently released a biography of the 18th president, which appears to lift him out of the scandal and booze for a bit and focuses on the advancement of racial equity.

Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.

***

1 September 17

Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy.  Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.

Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch.  While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.

Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.

US Conservancy picture of the North Mississippi in Wisconsin
US  Nature Conservancy photo of the Mississippi in Wisconsin

3 September 17

We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake.  One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.

Duluth roses
Duluth roses

A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota,  a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).

Driving to Two Harbors, MN
Lake Superior off Phil and Donna’s Porch

Clouds, sun, radical shifts in color and mood, moon, clouds, lake, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of God’s artistic capacity happily traipsing past each day … our friends have delighted in this gift – both physical and spiritual –  for over twenty years and are still mesmerized.

Our gracious hosts
Moses maintains control.

4 September 17

After rising early and dining on Phil’s hearty eggs and sausage, we toured Highway 61 north with Phil behind the wheel of the family van, Moses sitting on my lap peering out the windshield, and the women happily reminiscing in the passenger seats as we tooled up to Grand Marais, Minnesota with an extended side-trip on the Gunflint Trail to snatch a peek at the Boundary Waters, a treasure both Phil and I have fished on separate occasions, an astounding  1,090,000-acres of fresh water lakes covering both shores of the US and Canada.

As we looked northwest into the horizon, loons spontaneously serenaded, a bald eagle passed at eye level yards in front of our rock overlook, wheeled, and fell into the abyss.

Earlier in the day we’d visited Gooseberry Falls State Park, Split Rock Lighthouse, and Tettegouche State Park, known for its rock climbing.  All of these worthwhile stops appear along Highway 61 on western shores of Lake Superior between Twin Harbors and the Gunflint Trail.

5 September 17

The next morning we drove down to the docks to see iron ore loaded onto a massive lake hauler, but we arrived a few minutes late only to witness it steaming away toward Sault Saint Marie where we’d soon visit and watch similar ships pass through the locks.

Parting with good friends and carrying wonderful memories, we thanked Phil and Donna for their grace and hospitality, talked of future visits, then headed south to the Wisconsin state border – then east – with a glimpse of Apostle Islands passing by the driver’s side window as we cruised down Highway 13.

6 September 17

Between Bayfield and Marquette we passed iron ore mining towns – Ironwood, Bessemer – then lunched on remarkable onion soup at the Portside Inn at downtown Marquette on a bright fall day filled with tourists and shoppers.

Near Marquette, MI
Abandoned iron ore docks near Marquette, MI

Following Route 28, we stopped in Munising, Michigan to see Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its spectacular cliff and rock formations, but it was socked-into-the-fog so we headed to Whitefish Point where we thoroughly enjoyed the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.

Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
Whitefish Point Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

Endless rounds of Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (warning: if It’s A Small World still rings in your head, you may want to don ear plugs) lead you audibly through an excellent display of nautical science, specialized equipment, geographic explanations, descriptions of shipwrecks and stories of real-life derring-do that will spin your head.  The bravery of those masters of the Inland Sea is legendary, while technology has kept more Edmund Fitzeralds from finding the bottom of its inhospitable depths.  The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point is a must-stop, indeed.

***

A lovely drive down Highway 28 to Paradise found us at the end of the day inside the Magnuson Grand Lakefront Hotel with a balcony view of the ever-changing face of Lake Superior, and evening of sun, clouds, mist, and shifting light.

Lake Superior at Paradise, MI
Lake Superior at Paradise, MI

***

If you are a reader, then it’s possible you have met or have at least seen a character step out of the pages and cross your path.

This has happened to me twice.

Two years ago, when I was writing Jellybeaners, Lana and I passed through Tellico Plains, Tennessee on a motorcycle trip.  Tellico Plains is actually renamed “Kituwah Falls” as the novel’s fictional setting.

While eating a light lunch at a local restaurant, I witnessed the main character walk in – a six-foot wiry raven-haired half-Cherokee beauty – look at me, pull herself to her full height, smile, then back out and stride off  down the street.

Now two years later we stumble across Brown Dog, the part-Ojibwe hero of Jim Harrison’s UP novellas, a character here described by the New York Times’ Anthony Doeer:

Brown Dog has no other name. He’s simply B. D., a scoundrel, a “backwoods nitwit,” a “kindly fool,” a goof as lovable as Sancho Panza and a libertine as promiscuous (if not as discriminating) as Don Juan. Picture a smuttier, older and alcoholic Huckleberry Finn, who happens to be Native American.

The long-haired whiskey-soaked half-Indian Brown Dog – or his doppelganger – stumbled into the Little Falls Inn while we soaked up burgers, but he was much longer-in-the-tooth than the 49-year-old protagonist, which made sense because Harrison published the last Brown Dog novella in the early 90’s. Our BD paid us no mind and remained in character, affixed to a female, a second muscle-bound hand wrapped around a beer mug.

***

7 September 17

After breakfast we drove to Tahquamenon Falls State Park, amazed at the size of the falls and the water’s brown color, the effect of tannin in the soil that’s swept downstream.

Gooseberry Falls
Tannin colors the water at Tahquamenon Falls State Park

8 September 17

Ambling south, we arrived at Sault Saint Marie (sue saint mah ree)  mid-morning and happened to walk up to the locks just an iron ore ship Herbert C. Jackson, a seeming identical twin to the Edmund Fitzgerald, slipped through, then slowly descended to Lake Huron below as the life-sized crewmen we just chatted up minutes ago morphed into miniature Toy Story characters hauling string-ropes.

http://www.saultstemarie.com/attractions/soo-locks/
The Herbert C. Jackson

“The Soo” is an American city past its prime, though its Canadian twin appears to thrive, and there’s new talk of widening the locks to accept heavier commerce, which may bring a new financial spring for both as the Great Lakes eternally serve our distribution of goods with an efficiency outstripping trucks pounding interstates into oblivion and high-sulfur Wyoming coal trains hogging rail lines as commuters sit fuming on overcrowded expressways.

A friend of mine from high school moved to Seattle after college, loved his IT job at Boeing for nearly thirty years, but retired the day after his work buddy suffered a heart attack on a traffic-blocked expressway, expiring in his car, unable to exit, unable to receive help from outside the blocked lanes.

We can do better.

Spending the night in St. Ignace, Michigan – located on the north end of the Mackinac Bridge – we ran across another novel-worthy character who’d literally built his own functional tractor out of an assortment of parts-on-hand:  a straight six Ford motor, a massive steel u-bar for the frame, used wheels and tires, a drive train constructed of welded bolts and assorted gear drives from the parts bin. You can tell you’ve encountered a “character” when their spirit shows through … brightly.  It’s an experience beyond words, but you know it when you see it.

This wiry retired farmer dressed in oil-soaked overalls and reeking of knowledge gained from life experience, travel, and wide reading told us we’d just missed a parade of 2,200 antique tractors crawling over the Mackinaw, and that there were such annual parades for motorcycles and semi-trucks covered in lights.

We bid adieu after two beers and several enjoyable stories, then drove down to the waterside where antique tractors glowed in the orange-red sunset of a near-perfect fall day, Lake Huron shimmering in the background.

9 September 17

The next morning we paused at Bridge View Park, a memorial to the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge and enjoyed outstanding views bathed in warm sunshine, cumulus clouds reflecting on still waters, and then crossed the Mackinac Bridge onto the Lower Peninsula, where we meandered along the western shores of Lake Michigan.

The sculpture is a composite of a typical ironworker, said the Grosse Point Park artist, typical of the men who began building the Mackinac Bridge May 7, 1954, 53 years ago.
The sculpture is a composite of a typical iron worker

Spending the night in Ludington, we watched the sun set on a ferry stuffed with tourists as it pulled out for Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a system of conveyance allowing travelers to avoid the clogged arteries surrounding Chicago and Gary and enjoy themselves with brews and views instead of fumes of doom.

Luddington, MI
Ludington, MI

10 September 17

The next morning we eased out of Michigan on a cloudy day and transitioned into yellow-corn-sandy-soil northern Indiana, something I noticed having grown up in black loam Illinois where thick green stalks stand 6’ by the 4th of July.

The immaculate farms throughout Indiana, however, thrive under Amish and Mennonite ownership.  We made a mental note to return to this pristine countryside on a slow motorcycle ride.

Buggies clogged the roads...
Buggies clogged the roads…

11 September 17

During our last day on the road we slipped through Indiana into Kentucky and decided to spend the night at the well-designed Dale Hollow Lake Inn on the Tennessee / Kentucky border, where we enjoyed one last night of changing lake scenes while deer munched grass below our veranda.

Dale Hollow Lake
Dale Hollow Lake

***

Even with the exquisite scenery, renewed friendships, outstanding food, unexpected delights and character revelations, we realized our quick week in the UP was simply a training mission for longer, more laid-back excursions to come, perhaps by motorcycle or camping trailer because …

Midwestern lakes always leave you longing for more.

One Lake Superior Mood
A Superior Mood