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Jason Ringenberg's career path has taken a number of detours, no matter how you simplify it on paper or whose side you take. His longstanding band, Jason & the Scorchers, has been an alt-country favorite since its debut in 1981 and has regularly been picked to be the next Next Big Thing, a fate that has so far sadly eluded it. After a handful of mythic and mediocre releases and one semi-split, Jason & the Scorchers released 1998's Midnight Roads & Stages Seen, the double live album that, as anyone who has ever seen the band can attest, should have been put out years ago. Although well received, it was simply more preaching to the converted, and it ultimately didn't move the needle very far. Again.
As much as Ringenberg wanted to break up the Scorchers at that point, he and the rest of the band decided the best thing to do would be to call it a "hiatus" and move on separately for the time being. Ringenberg hadn't written an album's worth of new material since 1996's Clear Impetuous Morning, and the break offered by the live album merely reinforced his need to return to writing. As he began to write again, Ringenberg chose to make the songs he was working on extremely personal, primarily because he never intended for them to get much further than his living room.
"Most of these were written for the pure fun of writing songs and for little gifts for my family, quite frankly," says Ringenberg via phone from his Tennessee farm. "I wrote 'A Pocketful of Soul' as a birthday present for my wife, I wrote 'For Addie Rose' so I could sing a song to [daughter] Addie Rose, and on 'Oh Lonesome Prairie,' I just had this hankering to do a song about my heritage. So I wasn't really thinking 'album' when I was writing a lot of that material. As more songs started coming together, it was obvious I should start thinking about a record."
When Ringenberg began tentatively singing these scrapbook songs in public, the response he received indicated to him that maybe he should reconsider releasing them. His deal with Mammoth Records--which released the live album--was dissolved when Disney bought the company, so he decided to start his own label (called Courageous Chicken) and release the album, A Pocketful of Soul, himself.
"Until I started getting out and having people hear it, I thought it was just such a personal experience to listen to it, I didn't know that anybody else would get into it," Ringenberg says in retrospect. "It really connected with a lot of people on some pretty deep levels. Not everybody. A lot of folks didn't get it, people who were into energy music, or people who were more into the rock-and-roll part of what I've done in the past. But at that point, I started realizing that this was something beyond just an indulgent thing for Jason to do."
This isn't Ringenberg's first foray into the solo realm. Eight years ago, armed with major-label money and guidance, he threw his trademark hat into the solo ring with One Foot in the Honky Tonk, credited as simply Jason (going for that Madonna/Cher cachet, one would assume). The album was a pastiche of ill-conceived writing partnerships, overblown production, and poor promotion, and it sank accordingly. Ringenberg's life was in such a shambles at the time, he allowed the album to develop the way it did and was ultimately ambivalent about its failure.
"The first record shows myself as an artist completely out of control," Ringenberg says. "And I'm not blaming the people involved with that record for that. It was as much my fault as anyone's. I just didn't have a vision of what I wanted to do. I was really messed up after my divorce and after the Scorchers broke up, supposedly permanently at that point. I was crushed. The fact that somebody wanted to make a record...I was totally happy with that. But the idea that Jason could compete in the world of Clint Black and Garth Brooks was completely absurd. Then, it didn't seem so far-fetched."
Once Ringenberg decided to record A Pocketful of Soul, his first concern was studio costs, since he could ill afford to incur any. He turned to George Bradfute, former guitarist with Webb Wilder and the owner of one of the most eclectic and comfortable home studios in Nashville, the Tone Chaparral. Ringenberg's folio of quirky and intimate songs couldn't have been in more capable hands.
"George is sort of a legendary underground Nashville cat," says Ringenberg. "I call him the Van Dyke Parks of Nashville. He's just one of those guys that hangs out and makes great music. None of his records have ever sold big, but they always have a vibe about them. It made sense financially, because he records incredibly cheaply. It made sense from a production standpoint, because he can play anything and does."
When Ringenberg started bouncing around label names, he decided to keep that aspect of the project just as personal as the songs themselves.