When he fronts his rock band, Jason & the Scorchers, Jason Ringenberg climbs tall stacks of speakers, dives into the crowd, spews his words with the ferociousness of a punk rocker and whips his mic to and fro as intensely as Jerry Lee Lewis pounds his piano.
That side of Ringenberg is barely recognizable on Pocketful of Soul, an inward-looking collection of lovely and sentimental songs the singer recorded while taking a break from the rigors of roadwork with the Scorchers. Traces of the iconoclastic rock ‘n’ roller show up here and there on the rootsy solo album. Ringenberg’s singing remains raw and soulful. He takes a rebel’s stand or two, in songs such as “The Price of Progress.” But Pocketful of Soul is the tender, personal work of a 41-year-old songwriter contemplating home, family and spiritual matters. The songs are reflective but not maudlin.
“There’s a lot of appreciation on this record for the simpler things, the time honored things that make people happy, such as family and home,” Ringenberg acknowledges during an interview. “The Scorchers is a huge, violent monster. It is such an extreme experience playing with them, singing with them, writing for them, dealing with it all. To be able to move that monster in the right direction is a powerful thing. There are times when I need to step back. This was definitely a time to step back and mellow some.”
Ringenberg lives on a farm outside Nashville with his wife, Suzy, and their two daughters, Addie Rose and three-month-old Camille Grace. On Pocketful of Soul, he broadcasts his aspirations to slow down and settle into domesticity. He sings directly to his daughter on “For Addie Rose.” “The purest love all around you grows/I’ll do my best for you heaven knows,” he promises. The title track is for Suzy. “With a baby on her knee and flowers by the door/She’s got a pocketful of soul and she’ll give you so much more,” he sings.
On the opening cut, “Oh Lonesome Prairie,” Ringenberg reflects on his rural Illinois upbringing and the farm his grandfather built. “I long to stand upon your soil/Where winters kill and summers boil,” he sings. “Under Your Command” finds him struggling with spiritual questions, opting to trade a “pile of worldly goods” for “a hotel Bible and what it has to say.”
Rather than surround these songs with the full-bore assault of the Scorchers, Ringenberg opts for a mostly-acoustic small combo. Producer George Bradfute contributes acoustic and electric guitars, upright bass, Dobro, mandolin, banjo, snare drum and cello. Fats Kaplin plays fiddle, accordion and pedal steel. Ringenberg himself adds acoustic guitar and harmonica. He recorded the album at Bradfute’s home studio in Nashville and released it on his own label, Courageous Chicken Records. Reflecting the organic nature of the undertaking, the album notes promise “no sugar, preservatives, or artificial ingredients used.”
“I wanted a record that you can play on Sunday morning,” Ringenberg says of the subdued but intense approach he took. “That was a real, overriding goal in the writing, in the production, in the recording, in the artwork, everything about it. This is a record that you can play for your kids or mom and dad on Sunday morning.”
The album’s back-porch quality sounds markedly different from Ringenberg’s first solo album, One Foot in the Honky Tonk, released in 1992 and credited to “Jason.” Liberty Records’ misguided attempt to help Ringenberg infiltrate the country mainstream felt all wrong. A host of Music Row reliables were on hand, from producer Jerry Crutchfield to slick session players and proven country songwriters. Ringenberg contributed only one tune to the album, as a co-writer.
“I just showed up and they told me what to do,” he recalls. “With Pocketful of Soul, I co-produced it, wrote nearly all the songs and released it on my own label. I’m making all the decisions, right or wrong.”
The new work includes 10 originals and a pair of covers, “Whispering Pines,” made famous by late country star Johnny Horton, and “Trail of Tears,” a haunting anti-war number by Athens, Ga. rock band Guadalcanal Diary.
“Last of the Neon Cowboys” co-written with Kevin Welch, depicts an old, soulful honky-tonk singer who continues to give the music “all his heart” after a lifetime of trying to rise above the dank, neon-lit bars where he still plays. It’s a character Ringenberg admires. After nearly 20 years of performing, maybe he even identifies a little with the “neon cowboy.”
“The song was inspired by those old guys who were playing [Nashville’s] Lower Broadway, before the street was renovated, who I was impressed by when I first moved to town,” he explains. “There are very few of those guys left anymore. All those old guys with four-inch sideburns, wearing worn-out clothes that were once shiny and glittery, still going for it after all those years. It’s neat that they were still at it and still hadn’t sold their souls. If I could be of that age and still be playing music and still have my soul, I would consider myself very successful.”
Jason & the Nashville Scorchers — as they were called when they started — helped lay the groundwork for what would become the most fertile period in Nashville’s rock history. Known for their legendary, explosive performances, Jason and his mates — drummer Perry Baggs, bassist Jeff Johnson and guitarist Warner Hodges — were hyped by more than a few adoring pundits in 1983 as the next big thing. Some used “cowpunk” to describe the Scorchers’ fresh and edgy fusion of punk and honky-tonk.
The foursome signed with EMI at a time when the company’s roster boasted acts such as the J. Geils Band, the Stray Cats, David Bowie and George Thorogood. They scored modest rock radio hits with “White Lies” and “Golden Ball and Chain,” but album sales failed to meet expectations, Johnson left the band and there were staff changes at the label. Some lengthy hiatuses followed.
In the mid ’90s, Jason & the Scorchers signed with Mammoth Records, where they released a pair of studio albums and a live double-CD. Today, they are without a record deal and the group plays only the occasional live date. Nevertheless, they have tentative plans to record and tour next year in celebration of the Scorchers’ 20th anniversary.
With a family to raise and a mortgage to pay, Ringenberg relies on farm and carpentry work to make ends meet. Though he is unable to pursue music full-time, he says life is nice and he enjoys making music now more than ever.
“Music lives on its own terms for me now,” Ringenberg reasons. “It doesn’t serve my life and I don’t serve it, anymore. I don’t rely on it to make a living, for one thing. I just do it now for the pure enjoyment of doing it. I do it to express myself, basically. I know that sounds contrived, but it’s the truth.
“I no longer have expectations — any expectations, really — about the whole experience,” he says. “In terms of this record, it was a success when I first played it for Addie and she was dancing around singing along to it. My wife liked the record; my mother-in-law liked it; that’s all I really needed. That’s all I cared about, and now it’s grown into a full-blown release.”
On the heels of making his solo album with the Scorchers taking a backseat, for the time being, to his family, Ringenberg sounds like a man who has found balance in life. “There are going to be plenty of times in my life when I’ll be swinging a hammer, and there are going to plenty of times I’ll be swinging a guitar,” he feels. “Very, very few people hit the big jackpot in music, or they only hit it once, and once usually isn’t enough to set you up for life. Your motivations for playing have to be right. If your motivations are to make a bunch of money and retire and not have to work, you’re really shooting for the wrong goals.”