Jason Ringenberg – A reckless country’s soul
Dylan fan Jason’s essentially congruent response to unmitigated America-bashing, in 2004, is a series of songs on Empire Builders that tell the stories of Americans of character, perseverance, grit and restraint.
“I wanted to show some examples of Americans that I admire,” Ringenberg explains, “and also American ideals that I admire, so I chose to sing about Link Wray, about my own dad, about Chief Joseph — the Martin Luther King of his time; a good man — and the Tuskegee airmen of World War II. That’s a political statement, too, in a sense; I’m saying that when people completely write off the United States of America, they’re making a big mistake — and committing an injustice.”
So-called “protest songs,” generally designed to be calls to action or soundtracks for the same, are rarely celebrated for measured responses, and understandably so. And in the case of Ringenberg’s record, which heads for territory beyond bumper stickers so regularly, the thoughtfulness lurking behind the songs may strike some as additionally surprising. This is a guy, after all, best-known for introducing a dare-anything style of screaming, hell-bent cowpunk, and regularly tagged “reckless.” However smart, the music of Jason & the Scorchers rarely was moderate, rarely paused for explanations — and rarely, come to think of it, touched on politics at all, even amid a punk arena that often did.
“It’s true,” he says, looking back, “at that time the band wasn’t particularly political…with a capital P. Jeff Johnson and Perry Baggs were apolitical, I think; Warner Hodges was more of a conservative; and I was always kind of a centrist, in those days.
“I can’t say that we really thought of punk rock as a political art form. We just loved the raw aggression. We were quite influenced by the second-wave punk bands from Los Angeles — the Circle Jerks and Black Flag — and of course, also by that first wave of the Ramones and the Pistols. But I don’t remember anybody even raising politics with the band — not in Nashville or in places like Atlanta where we were playing a lot. Even R.E.M., I remember, wasn’t particularly political then. It was rock ‘n’ roll.”
If the Scorchers never quite looked at punk’s political potential as, say, the Clash or the Mekons tended to, in the context of that Nashville music scene of 1982, the band’s very existence as a punk/country hybrid, acting and looking as they did, was making a strong rebellious statement, with some social implications — and they knew it.
“Absolutely,” Jason laughs. “Just to walk on the streets with a Mohawk was a radical statement, in those days, and would get you into trouble. And here was Jeff with a pink Mohawk, and Warner with his hair hanging into his face, and me wearing duct tape for shoes and a shaved head. We were hyper-aware that we were on the cutting edge of something, and were shaking things up in a very serious way in Nashville and even around the world.
“But one night we’d be the saviors of rock ‘n’ roll, and the next night people would want to kill us. There were fights, and violence. When we went before country audiences, it was especially dramatic, because we were dealing with their music, and they thought that maybe we were making fun of it.”
Having taken some of the new political songs out on the road solo already, Ringenberg may be feeling a bit of deja vu.
“Yeah, well, some of the songs — ‘Rebel Flag In Germany’, for example — seem to blow people’s minds live. That’s still great fun! I may get wild cheers…but then, also, one time I was playing in a little coffeehouse, and for some reason there was a skinhead gang in the audience. Why, no one knew. There was no security, and it was a very peaceful place, but here’s this skinhead gang, drunk out of their minds at this table, just hatin’ me. They were there to screw up the hippies in the room!
“When I started that song, they started cheering, like it’s their song, right. They’re thinking I’m glorifying that rebel flag and they’re totally into it, cheering and clapping and singing along — for the first verse. Second verse, three of them kind of drop out. By the bridge, most of them have. And by the last verse [ending with the line “I don’t even want to see that flag in Tennessee”], they were discussing with each other how they’re going to ‘kick that guy’s ass!'”
It’s easy to wonder whether the more aggressive new songs don’t raise a certain nostalgia in the singer for having a whole blast of a band behind him to deliver the tougher messages harder and louder.
“Not really,” Ringenberg replies. “After years and years of being a frontman, I’ve relished the absolute challenge of solo performance. I don’t miss being in a band at all. What we did in the Scorchers was something I can be enormously proud of for the rest of my life. But I don’t see any significant future for that glorious old horse. I haven’t had that fire inside me since our drummer Perry left in 2002; it really isn’t a true band anymore. And I don’t think, with another band, I could match it.