Free-Range Pickin' 

Scorchers vocalist makes solo record of beautiful modern-day folk songs

Scorchers vocalist makes solo record of beautiful modern-day folk songs

Jason Ringenberg

A Pocketful of Soul (Courageous Chicken)

Performing 3 p.m. Saturday at Tower Records

It’s safe to say that only one record this year will open with a whoosh of bone-dry wind followed by this desperate invocation: “Oh lonesome prairie, I know it’s time / To go and see you and free my mind.” First off, the imagery is almost archaic; as a concept, “prairie” is even more remote than “country.” And even if prairies were commonplace, didn’t that “hear that lonesome whippoorwill” jazz die out already—way back in the dark ages, sometime before CMT?

It didn’t for Jason Ringenberg, a man who, in some ways, just wasn’t made for his times. As frontman for Jason & the [Nashville] Scorchers in the early 1980s, Ringenberg was championing Hank Williams while Music Row salivated over Urban Cowboy. Instead of being called a new traditionalist—there was hardly such a thing in 1981—he got branded a punk. Others rode the trad wagon to the bank; the wheels rolled right over the Scorchers. Now comes Ringenberg’s new solo record, A Pocketful of Soul, a beautifully played and produced collection of modern-day folk songs, proudly acoustic and country as hell. It’s as stubbornly out of fashion as the best of Ringenberg’s career.

“The Scorchers’ live record [1998’s Midnight Roads and Stages Seen] had a kind of closure, even though we’re still together, and I’d wanted to do an acoustic album for a long time,” Ringenberg said as he unwound one evening last week on his five-acre farm near Dickson. “I didn’t want to do a, ‘This represents all musical sides of Jason Ringenberg’ record. But with the Scorchers, it’s almost a character I write for. This time I could write without barriers or preconceptions. I could write and record just for the joy of doing it.”

A Pocketful of Soul is out of step even with the alt-country don’t-call-it-a-movement that the Scorchers helped start. Don’t expect an amped-up squall of trumped-up “insurgence” or angst-ridden doses of faux hillbilliana. Instead, starting with “Oh Lonesome Prairie,” a plangent, plain-as-dust reverie that summons the singer’s rural Illinois childhood, Ringenberg’s new songs skip the drunker-than-thou posturing of wannabe honky-tonk. His songs include a loving tribute to Suzy, his wife of three years; an achingly heartfelt lullaby to his little girl Addie Rose; and a stirring sea chantey about hewing to faith (“Under Your Command”). The record’s rounded out by a pair of covers: a soaring reading of Johnny Horton’s “Whispering Pines” and a full-tilt version of Guadalcanal Diary’s “Trail of Tears,” a song Ringenberg says was “practically folk music” for the crowd at Cantrell’s, the rock club that served as the Scorchers’ early-’80s headquarters.

The calmer subject matter may befit a man with a farm, a family, and a new baby daughter, 2-month-old Camille Grace. But the record still has tension. If anything, A Pocketful of Soul has the dynamics of a good tough Western, with Ringenberg in the role of former gunslinger turned edgily law-abiding homesteader. As celebratory as the title track and “For Addie Rose” are of family life, the singer always sounds just a shot away from defending the homeplace. Even the record’s holiday carol, “Merry Christmas, My Love,” frames the comforts of home as a soldier’s lament. The tension explodes—literally—on “The Price of Progress,” in which a family farmer watches the water from a TVA dam slowly swallow his land. Let it rise, he says; he’ll have the last laugh tonight, when he plugs the mother with dynamite.

This isn’t Ringenberg’s first solo record. In 1992, with the Scorchers disbanded and his personal life crashing, he recorded a Music Row-sanctioned country record called One Foot in the Honky-Tonk. Despite some solid tracks, the record’s misguided cowrites, session playing, and slick sound offered little evidence as to the location of the other foot. “When [that] record came out, I wasn’t in control of anything,” Ringenberg explains. “The Scorchers had broken up, I was going through a divorce, I was kind of at my lowest ebb. I just didn’t have the serious involvement an artist should have.”

In contrast, Ringenberg supervised every aspect of A Pocketful of Soul. (Those are even his chickens on the CD sleeve; he plans “a big business handling the Mid-South’s chicken modeling needs.”) The new record’s homespun feel, he says, is as much a result of the recording process as the songs. The record was cut on 16-track analog at coproducer/engineer George Bradfute’s Tone Chaparral home studio, a cozy environment where vocals are recorded in the living room. Vintage guitars and way-out bric-a-brac vie for wall space, Ringenberg says admiringly, “and it wasn’t just put there to look cool.”

Bradfute, who served for many years as Webb Wilder’s guitarist, filled in on everything from Dobro to cello. The only other musician was multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, who contributed accordion on several tracks as well as a sterling pedal-steel break on the Ringenberg/Kevin Welch tune “Last of the Neon Cowboys.” That song, a tribute to a die-hard honky-tonker, serves as Ringenberg’s salute to the days when he first moved to Nashville in 1981, and to the faithful who held the hard-country line.

“I used to see Ray Brand play on Lower Broad,” he remembers. “Back then the town was full of these guys with lambchop sideburns and rhinestone suits. Now Nashville’s trying to repaint the past to make it what we think it was, make it shinier.”

So would Jason Ringenberg consider his songs successful if the neon cowboys on Lower Broad are playing them in 20 or 30 years? “I don’t know about that,” he says with a laugh, “but I bet Addie’ll play them for her kids. She’s really into music. [‘For Addie Rose’] has really grown on her. One time somebody wanted to hear a CD, and she said, ‘No, I want to hear the “pretty little Addie Rose” song!’ For a father, that’s about as good as the music business gets.”

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