It’s taken the Americana genre nearly 20 years to get respect in the pop music world as a valid and vibrant form. In fact, the genre has been around since 1994 but didn't become a GRAMMY category until 2009. However, the real pioneers who first merged country, punk, and rock and roll came long before that. In fact, the birth of Americana really begins in the early ’80s. While most bands of the time were busy spraying their hair, looking for discarded leopard-patterned tights, and strapping on a keytar, a little band from Nashville called Jason and the Scorchers were covering Bob Dylan and Roy Acuff in the same set and scorching and kicking their way into the hearts of kids raised on punk rock. Nashville didn't know what to make of them and neither did rock and roll. But everyone from Nirvana to the White Stripes were paying attention.
In comparison to country rock pioneers like Gram Parsons, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Dylan, The Scorchers made them all look quaint and safe. The Scorchers played with a ferocious roar that had more in common with The Ramones than the Opry. But their love of country music was stone cold serious. In fact, a bootleged Jason and the Scorchers show recorded in Germany with less than 50 people in attendance made Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the best bootlegged live recordings of all time. You can almost hear the stage coming to pieces as the quartet tears into Hank Williams’s “Lost Highway.”
At the heart of the band on lead vocals was Jason Ringenberg, a tall lanky farm kid from Illinois who was renown for climbing billboards and kicking over many a record label exec’s free drink to prove the point that his heart was true and his boots were made of leather. And, if you didn’t like real country music, why then--may Hank have pity on your poor soul.
Today, Jason is known as Farmer Jason, an Emmy Award winning writer, singer, and performer for kids and an Epiphone artist for over twenty years. Jason has been quietly breaking ground in the crowded and competitive world of children’s music for over a decade with a series of albums about animals, farming, and the importance of taking care of the environment—topics other children’s artists are now beginning to take on themselves. Pioneering seems to come naturally to Ringenberg.
And though Jason typically tames a tidal wave of feisty kids with just an Epiphone EJ-200 these days, that Scorcher heart still breathes fire. We've seen the Scorchers in action and woe to any band that has to open for one of their rare gigs. Time has only made their hallmark sound deeper, richer, and tougher. Epiphone.com caught up with our favorite Farmer.
It’s great to see you again, Jason. What have you been up to since your album came out last year?
JR: Well, a year ago, I did a deal with a new universal start up called Kazoo Music. They are a children’s label and I was the first release, actually. We put out an album last year called Nature Jams and I’ve been promoting that since last January. The new round of interstitials based on the Nature Jams songs is what got the Emmy nominations.
Are those being shown nationally as well?
JR: It’s an essentially a regional thing but some stations around the country are playing the Farmer Jason interstitials.
What Epiphone Guitar are you using on the road?
JR: I have two EJ-200s that Epiphone set up for me and they sound magnificent. One of them I’ve had since ’94 and I did all that Scorcher touring with it. Now, it’s my first Farmer Jason guitar when I travel. And then I keep a newer one for videos and for recording and for photos--it’s nice and new looking. I also have an old AE-30, which was a prototype--I’m not sure it ever went into production--and I use that for the Scorchers sometimes. It’s a really good guitar.
You’ve been doing some Scorcher shows as well, right?
JR: It was our 30-year anniversary so we did a tour of the States last January and we did a pretty long tour of Europe in September and October.
Are you going into the studio with them any time soon?
JR: No, there are no plans for it right now. I think the Scorchers are sort of a--every now and then--more then (laughs) ethic. You know, we like to keep it special and keep it fun but it’s not like we’re an active band 12 months out of the year. Right now, I’m working hard to promote Nature Jams and touring a lot. We don’t have any studio plans right now.
And you recorded Nature Jams in Nashville with the help of a lot of friends.
JR: Yes, Nature Jams was a duet’s record so there was a lot of studio configurations but my longtime producer George Bradfute is heavily involved with it.
Tell me about writing a Farmer Jason song as opposed to writing something you might do for your solo shows or Scorcher’s shows. Each kind of performance has its own universe to draw from.
JR: You’re right. You can’t really have Farmer Jason sing a song about riding on the subway. There are certain subjects that it deals with. And as we’ve gone deeper into it, the subjects have become more defined. It’s basically about more nature activity and nature appreciation, which--at the beginning for the first records--was basically about farming. But aside from that, the processes are similar. And my Farmer Jason writing has informed my Scorcher writing quite a bit. I write catchier melodies than I used to.
How did that happen--what was your frame of mind when you were writing rock and roll as opposed to what you’re listening to now?
JR: I still listen to the same stuff. As I get older and a better musician, I can appreciate what the classic people did better than I used to. I used to appreciate people for songwriting and now I can appreciate more--“wow, that bass line is incredible”--that sort of thing.
As a kid, you grew up on a farm so to some it might seems like an obvious transition for you to go from the Scorchers to Farmer Jason. But the transition was gradual, is that right? How did Farmer Jason come about?
JR: I decided to create a family music character in 2002 when our daughters were young. It was originally meant to be a fun side project to entertain my own children, but now is the center of my career.
Since we last spoke with you, some old friends of yours, R.E.M., decided to retire. You used to cover “Rockville” in the Scorchers. Do you think having Farmer Jason as a creative outlet has helped to keep the Scorchers together and vibrant?
JR: We used to play “Rockville” in our set and we did consider cutting an unrecorded R.E.M. song called “Wind Out.” That’s an interesting question regarding whether being Farmer Jason helps keep me rocking with the Scorchers. I think the answer is probably, yes, it does help. Since I don’t have to now rely on Jason and the Scorchers for my main creative and commercial outlet, I do the band for more altruistic reasons.
Who is inspiring Farmer Jason right now--is there anyone you’d like to work with?
JR: I’ve got the Farmer Jason bases covered I think. But there are more artists talking about nature now. I anticipated that would happen, sooner or later. For awhile, I was the only kid on the block.
What’s your favorite kind of venue when you perform as Farmer Jason?
JR: Well, certainly in middle Tennessee it’s a magic experience. I do a lot of shows here because I’m on tv (laughs). When kids see something on tv, they take it in on a whole other level. Anywhere close to home is always a special occasion. The show at the Renaissance Center March 2 in Dickson, TN will be very big. That's sure to sell out.
I just want to add that I’ve been with Epiphone now for 20 years and I’ve found their guitars--the EJ-200 especially--are great sounding guitars. They just have a such a depth to them, such a broad sound. Also, for me what’s kept me with Epiphones is they can handle road work. They’re not fussy. You can pull out those Epiphones after they’ve been traveling 30,000 feet in the air in 40 degree below zero weather in the hold--you can pull them out that night--and they’re gonna play and they’re gonna sound good and that’s what I have to have. I have to have a good sounding, solid guitar and one that’s reliable. That’s why I play them and why I believe in them.
Catch Farmer Jason live at the The Renaissance Center in Dickson, TN on March 2. Visit Jason's website for more details!