American Questions 

Jason Ringenberg's new album examines whether the nation is embodying its higher ideals

Jason Ringenberg's new album examines whether the nation is embodying its higher ideals

Jason Ringenberg

Empire Builders (Yep Roc)

Jason Ringenberg started out playing country-rock, a genre that, fairly or not, is often linked to "Sweet Home Alabama" and right-leaning politics. But Ringenberg transcends such stereotypes. He's made a kids' record under the name "Farmer Jason," and his 2000 solo album, A Pocket Full of Soul, is full of plaintive, folky material, with nods to the Carter Family. Pocket included a few songs with a social conscience, but Empire Builders is something else altogether: a fierce, complex meditation on the United States' role in the world.

In a way, Empire Builders comes as no surprise; the album is part of a post-9/11 wave of political music. On the one hand, there have been several notable country hits in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; on the other, the left-wing PAC MoveOn.org recently released a compilation full of protest songs by buzz alterna-acts like Laura Cantrell and Death Cab for Cutie. And first the Dixie Chicks, and now Linda Ronstadt, drew furor for political comments they made from the stage. More and more musicians are using their celebrity to express their political views, and Ringenberg is no exception.

Empire Builders opens spare and twangy, with Ringenberg declaring, "Yes we can bomb most any land / Send their kids to Disneyland." It knocks the breath out of you. Ringenberg writes that the album sprang from international tours on which people viewed him as a representative of American foreign policy. He wrestles with what, on the opening track, he calls the "American Question," expressing guilt over what he sees as U.S. imperialism and wondering whether the country's higher ideals still hold true. "Can we export dignity?" he asks. In the meantime, when abroad, he pretends to be Canadian.

Ringenberg often expresses the dissonance he feels through music that clashes with the lyrics he sings. He covers Merle Haggard's sardonic "Rainbow Stew," which paints a picture of a Day-Glo future where the president keeps his campaign promises. Ringenberg's clownish vocals make the vision seem farcical. On "New-Fashioned Imperialist," he criticizes global capitalism against a cheery oompah band complete with tuba and accordion.

In Ringenberg's historical story-songs, good people don't get what they deserve. In "Tuskegee Pride," an African American pilot fights in World War II to spread the freedom his own country won't give him. "Eddie Rode the Orphan Train" has a beautiful refrain describing a man who worked hard for not much. The dying protagonist of "Chief Joseph's Last Dream" wishes for peace and prayer, but behind the song lies his life's bitter realities; with lush strings and muffled gunshot drums, it could be the soundtrack to a modern-day Western.

Empire Builders isn't unrelentingly political. For example, the bittersweet love song "She Hung the Moon (Until It Died)" drips with yearning pedal steel. Still, the only reprieves from elegy on the album are an upbeat tribute to Ringenberg's farmer father and a squealing paean to guitarist Link Wray, the latter with some surf-punk guitar that makes you want to shimmy.

Is Empire Builders didactic? Not if by "didactic" you mean a work of art for which the medium is but a pallid backdrop for its message. Empire Builders is a cohesive, thoughtful album, not a bag of slogans; even when Ringenberg chants his views in recitative to bass and percussion, his sophisticated songs never turn a complicated situation flat.

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