Legendary Country-Punker Jason Ringenberg Returns with Eclectic Solo LP ‘Rhinestoned’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Punk-country rocker Jason Ringenberg returns untypically quickly for this solo, socially distanced, masked up solo effort Rhinestoned, which follows 2018’s Stand Tall, which had marked his first solo album in 15 years. While that album had a clear focus, as he was commissioned as the artist-in-residence at Sequoia National Park in northern California, the subject matter on this one is wide-ranging. It’s an album he didn’t necessarily plan on making but the boredom brought on by the pandemic made him restless. Before long he had an album full of songs and followed his instinct by reaching out to his longtime collaborator, producer and multi-instrumentalist George Bradfute. Bradfute shouldered most of it, with help from Fats Kaplin, drummer Steve Ebe, and a few harmony vocalists such as Kristi Rose, Mark Andrew Miller and Ringenberg’s daughters, Addie and Camille who sing on “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today.” Bradfute’s recording studio is in the basement studio that once belonged to the great Jim Reeves, a noted Nashville star from the 1950s – whose spirit may have guided some of what went down. 

This album has some serious subject matter as well as its fill of love, spiritually uplifting, heartbreak, history lessons, and intentional covers from the American country songbook from different eras, from the early Carter Family days to a Hank Williams, Sr. classic to an old hit from rockers The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. His unexpected choice of the Methodist Church hymn, “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today,” reveals his Christian beliefs’ unwavering stance with family backing vocals, an unexpected choice from whose music many would describe as irreverent.

Other the other hand, “The Freedom Rides Weren’t Free” talks about the sacrifices made by the young black and white folk who fought during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He references the Nashville marches and other events that shaped the historic time in U.S. history. The song was written right before the major racial unrest during the summer of 2020 – a writer who had a premonition about the tumultuous times just ahead. He digs into a seldom heard side of American history with the unknown story of an old Lakota/Oglala legend that one of Crazy Horse’s cousins rode and fought beside him through every battle to his death at Fort Robinson in Nebraska in “I Rode With Crazy Horse.” Ringenberg nails the suffrage and endurance it took to fight for their native sacred land, saying, “I heard the song in a dream, woke up, and hummed the melody into my phone recorder.” says Jason. The opener, “Before Love and War” is a difficult one to dissect but interesting in its mythological lyrics – “Obsidian nights for hiding/Things you didn’t want me to see/Like the wild horse you were riding/Through my sadness into the sea.”

Ringenberg has lived in Nashville long enough to see three or four transformations that he documents in the title track, “Nashville Without Rhinestones.” As the song depicts, the once rhinestone adorned country music stars are now mostly in the rearview mirror replaced with the trendy hipsters and their crafted beers. In the creative ending of the song, Jason sings “soaked in sweat and sorrow,” and he pairs it with a year starting from 1963 to 1923, paying homage to his love of the vintage years of country music from the 1920-60s.  Those same forebears of traditional country music would hardly have believed Ringenberg’s fondness for their sounds during the heyday of his Jason & the Scorchers act, one that he still dabbles in occasionally. In fact, the last three tracks, “Stoned on Rhinestones,” “Keep That Promise,” and “Window Town” will remind longtime fans of the Scorchers.

One of those is the already released radio single “Keep Your Promise,” a rowdy heartbreak song.  Surely, it’s vintage Ringenberg, but nowhere near as surprising a turn from his pen as most of those previously referenced. Another solid one is “My Highway Songs” where he definitely indicates the rock n’ roll fire still burns – “When wheels are rolling, sometimes I see/The road stretching forever to eternity/Is there a purpose both weak and strong/ Is there a place in this world for my highway songs.” Country Music Hall of Fame senior director Peter Cooper once said, “Jason Ringenberg is Nashville’s greatest 20th-century rock ‘n’ roll frontman.” With statements like that, you would think Jason might rest on his laurels now that he is in his 60s. No, not him. He’s just getting his second wind. This writer certainly listened to his share of Jason & the Scorchers records but was only fortunate to see them perform in the mid-2000s at one of the Americana Music Award shows, which they kicked off. Their signature sound catapulted Jason and his band into a new genre called ‘cow-punk,’ which would later mature into Americana. Some even call him “the godfather of Americana,” a title he shares with many others by the way – John Prine, Levon Helm, and David Bromberg, to name a few. In any case, his contributions were pivotal and today his songwriting and presence still burn bright, thankfully.

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