Twenty-five years ago, Jason Ringenberg played the bars of downtown Springfield. A young college student in Carbondale, straight off the family farm, he was trying to find his place in the world of music. Decked out in his fringed jacket, harmonica rack, and acoustic guitar, Ringenberg sang old country songs and tunes by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and other folk-rockers. On July 4, 1981, he headed for Nashville to find a rock & roll band whose members liked country music. He succeeded in his quest, and so began the odyssey of Jason and the Scorchers. The group played what was then called cowpunk, country thrash, “TNT from Tennessee,” and other peculiar things until the alternative-country label came into being several years later.
Jason and the Scorchers, known as one of the best live bands in the genre, released a couple of good records on EMI before, as guitarist Warner Hodges put it, “we didn’t break up, we fell apart.” By the early ’90s, Ringenberg was trying to find a niche in Nashville without the Scorchers. He flirted with the established traditional country-music community, but his natural tendency to be a bit different quickly quashed the budding affair. After a Scorchers reunion tour in the mid-’90s, the group recorded a couple of well-received albums, then let the whole thing go again, only occasionally reuniting for a show.
Through it all, Ringenberg continued his solo labors, forming his own record label, Courageous Chicken, to produce and distribute his work. Popular in Europe since the Scorchers days, he found steady gigs there and in stalwart pockets of alt-country resistance in the States.
A few years ago, Ringenberg developed the alter ego of Farmer Jason, a performer of children’s songs. After producing the CD A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason, Ringenberg found himself playing daytime shows for kiddies in libraries and nighttime shows for adults in taverns. His most recent adult release, Empire Builders, on Yep Roc Records, takes a swipe at U.S. foreign policy. It’s not the usual source of inspiration for the folk-punk pioneer, who is more likely to sing of lost love and found whiskey than American imperialism. But that’s just what makes him so wonderful and successful: He follows his heart, and we watch and listen.
Jason Ringenberg plays the Underground City Tavern, 700 E. Adams St., on Friday, June 24. Opening the show at 9 p.m. are the Moaners, a duo from Nashville, Tenn.