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.
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?
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. Their potent mix of punk rock and country gained them fans around the world. 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. -- Wikipedia
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.
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 energy – if 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
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)