Last of the Neon Cowboys

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.

"I toyed around with some pretentious-sounding record-biz names," Ringenberg says with a laugh. "But that didn't seem to make sense, because this was just me having fun and hoping to make a little money and keep making music. Chickens are big in our family--we have chickens for pets and for eggs, my wife loves chickens, and we bought a farm that used to be a chicken farm. I thought that was cool; then I thought, 'What can I do to make this so there's a little twist to it?' So I did that double entendre with Courageous Chicken. It kind of describes how I feel about music sometimes."

Neither the label nor the album is an isolated occurrence for Ringenberg, who plans to release another solo acoustic album on Courageous Chicken and is looking into the possibility of putting out a legitimate version of Jason & the Scorchers' legendary bootleg Rock On Germany on the label as well. Less likely, however, is a new Scorchers album, which, simply from the logistical standpoint of studio time, production values, and promotion and distribution assistance, will probably wind up on a larger, more established label.

For now, Ringenberg has his hands full with A Pocketful of Soul. One interesting aspect of the album is the material that Ringenberg didn't write alone. "The Last of the Neon Cowboys," a song he co-wrote with Kevin Welch (one of Nashville's best-kept songwriting secrets), was a leftover from his first solo album, and he covers Johnny Horton's "Whispering Pines" and Guadalcanal Diary's jangle-pop ode "Trail of Tears."

Going from Johnny Horton to Murray Attaway is a genre stretch no matter how you look at it, but Ringenberg found the common thread.

"I wanted to show the two sides of my roots heritage," he explains. "One going back to a person like Johnny Horton, and the other one to go back to fellow figures from the early '80s roots explosion in America. I thought that was a nice range to include someone from both sides, and those songs have always meant a heck of a lot to me."

It's not surprising that Ringenberg's love of songcraft shows up in his choice of covers as naturally as it does in his own work. Nor is it surprising that he has once again been lionized by the press, recently earning a coveted spot on the Associated Press' list of the Top 10 Country Records of 2000. After close to two decades of his papering his walls with similar accolades, one can only hope that A Pocketful of Soul will finally mark the moment that a substantial number of record buyers put Ringenberg's name on their want lists.

"I'm real happy with the way the live thing's going, especially after coming off Jason & the Scorchers," he says. "When I looked at doing this, that was the scariest part of it. How do I walk out on stage after being with the band for 20 years? People say we're the best live band in the world. Not a lot, but some. Enough to make me scared. I was terrified [of playing solo]. The first show was in Denmark, and it was the first time in 15 years that I was nervous, really nervous. I just went with the flow, and to this day I just walk on stage, and what happens happens."

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Brian Baker