A charmingly adult moment occurs midway through “Opossum in a Pocket,” one of the songs on the new children’s record Rockin’ in the Forest With Farmer Jason. Farmer Jason plays an out-of-tune harmonica solo that’s interrupted by producer George Bradfute, who says, “I think that’s the wrong harmonica you’ve got there!” Without missing a beat, Farmer Jason offers an impromptu lesson in perseverance and honesty. He admits his mistake, gets the correct harmonica and finishes the song in the right key.
Farmer Jason is perhaps better known as Jason Ringenberg, whose 1980s records with Jason and the Scorchers fused punk and country in a prescient synthesis. Now acknowledged as classics, Scorchers records such as 1984’s Fervor enjoyed critical acclaim, but were somewhat less than commercially successful. Ringenberg continued to record and tour with the Scorchers, released well-received solo works and in 2003, recorded the first children’s record under his new moniker, A Day at the Farm With Farmer Jason. It gave way to a new, even younger audience and a marketing scheme that drew both on his hog-farm and punk roots with slogans such as, “anarchy in the pre-K.”
Now 48, Ringenberg grew up on a farm in northern Illinois and moved to Nashville in 1981. These days, he lives on a 10-acre farm west of town with his wife and young daughters. “My family is still in the farming business, so I help my father with his Illinois farm,” he says. “We’re still in the agricultural world. Here on my small farm, we have a pony, a goat, some chickens and a pig, and we grow almost all our own vegetables.”
With Bradfute’s excellent, eclectic production, and help from performers such as singers Todd Snider and Kristi Rose and multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, the two Farmer Jason records are designed for young children. Still, with their gentle references to Bo Diddley, Elvis and The Ramones, the songs’ full-band performances appeal perhaps equally to adults. “The Forest Oh!” works as a sort of genial Celtic-rock, complete with Kaplin’s pennywhistle, while “Punk Rock Skunk” sports a superb drum part by Steve Ebe. As Ringenberg says, “George is making records that have the catchiness kids need, while having some really interesting musical things happening for adults.”
A Day at the Farm With Farmer Jason takes children through a typical workday, imparting lessons on everything from the virtue of rising early (“Get Up Up Up!”) to the proper care of pets (“Little Kitty”). Ringenberg describes A Day at the Farm and Rockin’ in the Forest as “concept records,” and says, “I intend to keep that going, as opposed to just writing 12 songs for kids.”
As befits the composer of “Get Up Up Up!,” Ringenberg has sworn off some of his old rock ’n’ roll habits, since he gives his Farmer Jason performances early in the day. “It’s a wonderful experience to be done with your show by 2 p.m.,” he says, “and go back to your hotel room and relax, not have to fight crowds in a hot, smoky bar at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
This doesn’t mean that Ringenberg hasn’t incorporated some aspects of his former persona into his current act. “I always perform solo,” he says. “It’s a very spontaneous show, a lot of interaction with the kids.” As for the similarities between punk rock and the world of young children, Ringenberg laughs. “There’s not really a big difference between singing to a room of hyped-up 5-year-olds and playing for a room full of drunken adults,” he says. “The behavior is actually quite similar.”
In fact, songs such as Rockin’ in the Forest’s “Punk Rock Skunk” might speak to the inner child, or inner punk, in all of us. As Ringenberg says, “I was on a Spanish tour, and began noticing that these long-haired, rock ’n’ roll Spanish bikers would come up after my shows. They would say, ‘I want the Farmer Jason CD!’ And I’d say, ‘Sir, this CD is for niños—for children.’ And they’d say, ‘Oh no, it rocks!’ ”