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A Conversation with Farmer Jason (Ringenberg)

Mike Ragogna: Hey Jason, looks like things are pretty “scorching” on your new album Christmas on the Farm. See what I did there?
Jason Ringenberg:

MR: Uh-oh. Soooo what are your favorite moments on the new project and why did you record a Christmas album at this point in your career?

JR: I had such fun recording this record. My favorite moment was at the end of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” We cut it live with two harmony singers Molly Felder and Dave Roe from Johnny Cash’s old band. The parts were so difficult to execute live but somehow the magic coalesced. However, Dave was getting pretty grumpy by the end of it. When we played it back we could hear him saying in his Tennessee drawl, “Y’all are some mean sons o’ bitches.” We were in stitches hearing him say that at the end of such a classic sacred song! Of course, we had to erase it. But I still have a version of it…
I believe this is the perfect time for me to release this project. I now have enough age and family experience to grasp how important Christmas music is to kids and their parents.

MR: What are some of your favorite personal Christmas memories?

JR: I grew up in rural Northern Illinois so Christmas was definitely “wintry.” We used to all load up in Dad’s old ’65 Chevy truck and go to a wild area north of our farm to cut a tree. Once we saw a herd of whitetail deer, which were quite rare back then. I thought one of them REALLY was Rudolph! When it jumped over a fence it looked like it was flying.

MR: Did you ever go through a “Christmas music is corny” phase and what motivated you to record this latest project?

JR: No, I always loved Christmas music from childhood all the way to the present (I am 56.) I have often noticed though that there aren’t a lot of Christmas albums for kids other than the usual TV show generated releases. So I decided to dive into the snowbank and make a contribution.

MR: Other than for your farmer skills, you’re highly respected for your high energy and attitudinal work with The Scorchers. What do you think of your musical legacy so far and why the change in persona?

JR: I believe Jason and the Scorchers had an impact on the music world way out of proportion to our commercial sales. I am proud and honored when other artists cite us as an influence. While that doesn’t pay the mortgage, but it does seed a certain validation for what we did. I started Farmer Jason as a vehicle to entertain my own young daughters in 2002. To my surprise and delight the character took hold and now is the main driver of my career. I love doing it. I have the best gig in the world. I honestly feel that way.

MR: When you look at the state of Americana and rock these days, what are your thoughts?

JR: I really don’t know much about the rock scene these days, although I do enjoy hanging out with rock dudes when our paths cross. A few years ago I did a festival as Farmer Jason in Finland. SLIPKNOT was playing there as well and on the same flight as me. We talked quite a while. It turned out the singer once worked security at a Scorchers show in Des Moines, Iowa, back in the ’80s! The music business can be a very small world.
I do, as expected, stay up more on what’s happening in the Americana world. I have watched that genre grow from a boutique term to a very valid force in music. A lot of those artists are doing fantastic work.

MR: What’s the best advice you were ever given and did you follow it?

JR: My Dad was a simple hog farmer but he had a worldly wisdom all his own. He said to me early on: ” You had better enjoy playing music, because you won’t make any money doing it.” Hmmm….

MR: [laughs] What advice do you have for new artists?

JR: Make the music business work for you–NOT the other way around.

MR: Will there ever be a Farmer Jason and the Scorchers project down the pike?

JR: Well, Jason and the Scorchers are doing two shows at the Kennedy Center in April with Bowen McCauley Dance Company in Washington DC. They are choreographing an entire program using our songs and a simple story I wrote about the inner journey of a young Southern musician. We will play live while they do the program. I am REALLY looking forward to that.

Regarding the “FARMER Jason and the Scorchers” idea…you just never know. There is not a lot of difference between a room full of toddlers and a room full of drunken rockers. Both spill their drinks and cry a lot…

The Real Christmas Miracle
By David McGee

This much is guaranteed: you’ll find no other Christmas album for this season as warm-hearted, warm and downright funny as Jason Ringenberg’s (aka Farmer Jason) Christmas on the Farm. Being nothing less than a holiday lesson for kids in the important role animals of all kinds play in everyday life and did play in the Christmas Story, Christmas On the Farm embraces Farmer Jason’s past as neo-honky tonk punk rocker (as the titular head of Nashville’s awesome Jason & The Scorchers) to advance its messages with a twang here, a backwoods country drawl of a vocal there and with what the Pogues’ late, great Philip Chevron called “a punk rock kick in the arse.” To accomplish this Farmer Jason—the rural personal Ringenberg adopted a decade or so ago—enlisted the formidable assistance of producers Thomas Jutz and Peter Cooper, and further enlisted Jutz to do something else he excels at—playing rootsy, dynamic guitar—added Mark Fain on bass and Lynn Williams on percussion and got some other expert assistance from the likes of Sierra Hull (mandolin), Steve Herman (trumpet), Fats Kaplin (steel guitar and fiddle), Kelli Workman (piano), Dave Roe and Molly Felder (vocals), a memorable guest appearance by Webb Wilder, and even a couple of other Ringenbergs—his daughters Addie Rose on vocal and Camille on flute joining in to create a charming, lilting rendition of “Away In a Manger” that evokes the solemnity and tenderness of the Christ child’s birth night with the animals lowing beside Him protectively.

“Away in a Manger” illustrates the Farmer’s approach to this project, in which kids come first—he introduces the song by explaining how “farmers and farming were a very important part of the Christmas Story” in that “the first people to see the baby Jesus were sheep farmers… More importantly, Jesus was born in a stable, which is a small horse or donkey barn, near Bethlehem, Israel.” Far from being put off, the guess here is that most adults will find these interludes appealing simply owing to Jason’s enthusiasm and sincerity—you’d have to be a real Grinch to grouse about the narration, much as you’d have to be one to dis the music herein. Though the album is mostly traditional or contemporary carols and songs, the lead number is Ringenberg’s own bouncy original, “Christmas On the Farm,” which bears a passing resemblance to “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” and soars on the strength of ebullient solos by Justin Moses on banjo and fiddle and a clarion call of trumpet by Steve Herman as Jason’s vocal extols the wondrous natural beauty of rural life at Yuletide (interesting how this track sounds much like a Giving Tree Band song), including “a guitar pickin’ chicken pickin’ out a song.” Another Ringenberg original, the thumping “Santa Drove a Big John Deere,” offers a different twist on Santa’s Christmas Eve chores by imagining no force of nature being too daunting for Kris Kringle behind a big John Deere tractor, romping through the spirited performance with an assist from the deep, resonant twang of Jutz’s guitar.

Folks, it only gets more inspired from there. If you’ve always wondered what “Up On the Housetop” would sound like in a variation of the Johnny Cash beat, well, third song in supplies the answer. Jutz provides the necessary Luther Perkins homage with his upper strings Tele soloing as rhythm section Fain and Williams keep the “boom-chicka-boom” bottom solid. Chalk this one up as the best “Up On the Housetop” since the Jackson 5 rocked through it on their 1970 Christmas album. A seasonal retooling of an older Ringenberg-Peter Cooper original, “Punk Rock Skunk,” now titled “All I Want for Christmas Is a Punk Rock Skunk,” is even zanier—a “punk rock kick in the arse” with hints of the Cash beat and “Ring of Fire” trumpets and lyrics suggesting possibly viable alternatives to the titular animal, such as “a piggy singing pop” (“Someone make it stop!” Farmer Jason shouts), “a jaybird singing jazz” (“a skunk has more pizzazz!”), “a country singing croc” (“no, the skunk can really rock!”) and so on; finally you begin to pick up on these alliterative allusions bearing some rhythmical resemblance to a beloved passage in Arlen-Harbug’s “If I Were King of the Forest” as performed by Burt Lahr in The Wizard of Oz. After introducing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” as one of his family’s favorite sing-a-longs, Jason, Molly Felder and Dave Roe join voices as Kelli Workman accompanies them on an acoustic piano that sounds like it was recorded in a real country church with no acoustical treatment—you half expect to hear the sound of cars passing by on the road outside, so raw are the sonics here. The vocals, too, are raw—in tune and reverent but raw, again like you might find in a country church full of untrained but committed singers. This lack of affectation is part of the album’s undeniable charm, not least of it being the speaking, and sometimes singing, voice of Ringenberg himself. Every aspect of it—timbre, drawl, phrasing, enthusiasm—sounds for all the world, to your faithful friend and narrator, like none other than that of actor Tom Lester, best known to the general populace as Eb Dawson, the well-intentioned but often bumbling farmhand employed by Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas on Green Acres and whom he always referred to as “Mom” and “Dad” (over Oliver’s objections).

As the album moves along the focus rarely strays from the animals, in the above mentioned “Away In the Manger,” in a humorous skit with Webb Wilder that sets up their trading swinging verses of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reinder” (in which Webb, when asked, offers unvarnished assessments of Santa’s reindeer, describing, for instance, Dasher and Dancer as being, respectively, “a speed demon and a hoofer) and in a showcase number, Ringenberg’s original “The Animals Song,” a furious punk rock workout, with a taste of Brian Setzer’s intro to “Summertime Blues” in Jutz’s heavy twanging riffs, celebrating how the animals rejoiced in Christ’s birth (“The animals they all did sing/it was the world’s first caroling/they sang together full of grace/when the light shown on their face” is the chorus) and insinuating into the story a smidgen of spirituality (e.g., “…sang together full of grace…” and “..the barn became a holy place…”) to keep the balance right. As it happens, only food takes a beating on Farmer Jason’s debut Christmas outing, as both the rousing, horn-driven stomp of “Eat Your Fruitcake” (“…and set your landfill free…”) and the album closing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (wherein Jason fends off all attempts to feed him a Figgy pudding, protesting, over the tune as sung by an a cappella trio comprised of Webb Wilder, Peter Cooper and Kristi Rose, “I…I really don’t want any figgy pudding…I don’t like that pudding…I really wish you would quit singing about this figgy pudding…”). Well, eventually they persuade him to take a bite and voila! A Christmas miracle! He decides he likes figgy pudding—“I wish I would have tried it years ago now,” an abashed Farmer Jason admits, thus bringing dignity to the dish he had been so thoroughly bashing—and joins in a merry closing chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to close the festivities on a cheerful note. It’s not easy to do a really different Christmas album without it seeming cynical and/or smug, but Farmer Jason has accomplished the neat feat of finding a new way into the Yuletide in a joyful, winning way that honors the traditions, works some interesting contemporary musical twists on the old songs and introduces some new original songs deserving of perennial status from here on. Think of the character Farmer Jason as a modern-day version of Dickens’s Mr. Fezziwig in “A Christmas Carol”: kind, generous, of sunny disposition and valuing above all else friendship and esprit de corps, making everyone seem part of what makes him happiest in his life and taking something positive from their proximity to him. Thus the real Christmas miracle emerging from this disarming long-player.

With sing-along aplenty, a hefty dose of schmaltz and some fine picking and playing Christmas On The Farm is an excellent choice of Christmas music for anyone who has impressionable kids (or impressionable adults) and wants to plant a seed of doubt that Disney is not the be all and end all for tinsel tattered tiny tots.

Jason Ringenberg might be known to some readers as the lead singer of Jason & the Scorchers, great alternate rock,. I used to have one of their albums on my gym mix . Ringenberg has achieved far greater fame, however, using his alter ego – Farmer Jason.  As Farmer Jason, he’s won a Parents’ Choice Gold Award and had his own PBS show, which won an Emmy.  Now here he comes with a rockabilly-country set for the Christmas holiday, called, logically enough Christmas on the Farm with…Farmer Jason.

Jason’s originals have a lot to do with farming and the environment, “Santa Drove a Big John Deere” tells what happens when the reindeer take the night off; “The Animals Sang” reminds us that Jesus was born in a manger; and “Eat Your Fruitcake” is about saving landfills.  He sings more traditional songs like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Away in a Manger” with sincerity. Kids will delight in his funny antics and spoken introductions,  and parents will find some amusement as well. Perhaps the disc will bring back a childlike view of the holiday to those who are long past childhood. Well recorded, too. Complete texts to the new songs are included but you won’t need then. Farmer Jason has clear enunciation.

by Dan MacIntosh

“Christmas on the Farm” is Farmer Jason’s fan-funded, agricultural-centric holiday release. These songs perfectly match Jason’s unique musical personality. The farmer side of his personality is addressed with “Santa Drove a Big John Deere,” which replaces St. Nick’s usual sleigh with a familiar green and gold tractor.

Ringenberg’s past as leader for the cow-punk band Jason & the Scorchers is referenced with the rocking “All I Want for Christmas (Is a Punk Rock Skunk).” Farmer Jason introduces many of these songs with spoken word segments, such as what he says before “Away in a Manger.” It’s a fitting inclusion because the song also features many familiar farm animals in its lyrics. He is also helped out on the singing of it by his daughters, Addie Rose and Camille.

One big problem with holiday music is how – like so much of Christmas in general – is how it’s become so commercialized. Too much Christmas music sounds thrown together just to make a buck. Not so with Farmer Jason’s “Christmas on the Farm,” however. This album includes plenty examples of his storytelling skills, which he has honed in his children’s musician persona over the years, as well as a bevy of songs that sound to be near and dear to his heart. This album is geared toward the younger music listeners, but it’s put together so well, everybody will love it – both young and old. The album’s not “product,” but the product of a guy that sincerely loves celebrating Christmas on the farm.

Writer Of The Week
Written by Caine O’Rear

Farmer Jason, an Emmy award-winning children’s entertainer, is the project of Jason Ringenberg, the principal singer and songwriter behind seminal country-punk band Jason and the Scorchers. Farmer Jason recently released a collection of holiday songs called Christmas On The Farm, to the delight of children everywhere. We chatted with Ringenberg about what inspires him to write, what he considers to be the perfect song, and more.

When did you first conceive of the character of Farmer Jason?
In 2002 I began to think about recording a children’s music album for my then pre-school daughters Addie and Camille. The idea blossomed into a full fledged character as I wrote the songs.

Farmer Jason still has a bit of a punk edge. Are you trying to ignite “Anarchy in the Pre-K”?
I am always trying to motivate kids to get active, get away from the TV, and go outside to experience nature.

What made you decide to record a Christmas album?
I absolutely love Christmas records and for years have noticed that children’s music Christmas albums are quite rare. I decided to jump in and fill that void.

So I understand you’re an actual farmer now?
Yes, I am a real farmer. On our home place in Tennessee we grow a lot of our own food. I also farm the old Ringenberg family farm in Illinois. Last year we grew non-gmo soybeans and had a very successful crop.

How do you go about writing songs as Farmer Jason? Is it the same approach you had when you were with Jason and the Scorchers?
I do write differently with Farmer Jason than I did with Jason Ringenberg or Jason and the Scorchers. With Farmer Jason, I try to make the songs as absolutely catchy as possible. That is the “prime directive” in children’s music. I also use much more repetition and incorporate educational concepts into the lyrics as well.

What is your general approach to writing lyrics?
With Farmer Jason I try to keep it simple as possible and always remember that I am writing for 5 year olds. It is a different ballgame altogether.

What sort of things inspire you to write?
I love to write about nature and farm animals. That is where I always seem to end up.

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I am most proud of “The Animals Sang”. I believe I succeeded in writing a Christmas song that adds something new to the wonderful body of that genre. The experience of writing it was quite intense, much like writing when I was younger.   There was a real power behind it.

Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Like anything, the more you do it the better you get. I find it easier to write a bunch of songs than an occasional one off.

Are there any words you love or hate?
Interestingly I used to hate the word “Boogie” but now I love it and even wrote a song called “Bayou Boogie.”  I usually avoid using cuss words, even in my non Farmer Jason music, except for hell and damn occasionally.  I especially hate using bathroom oriented words in any format.  For some reason I have often used the word “sand” in several of my songs. I love that word. I also love the word “change.”

The most annoying thing about songwriting is…
Whenever you first write a song, you naturally think it is your best ever. When you come down from the high it is quite disheartening, unless of course it REALLY IS your best song yet!

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Yes I dabble in journalism and history a bit. I also write a monthly column in a Tennessee magazine called “Local Table.” In the column I answer questions from kids about farming and nature.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I have three answers to that: Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Hugh Deneal from the Southern Illinois band “The Woodbox Gang” is my favorite post punk songwriter. Almost no one has heard of him.

What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
I was listening to “American Pie” yesterday and marveled at how well written that was.  But at the end of the day I have to go with “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Dylan.  Every line takes you on a journey, lifts your spirits, and connects you to God.  It is a very special song that has meant so much to so many, me included.

Farmer Jason Gives Kids a Rural Christmas Story
Brian T. Atkinson

Jason Ringenberg‘s Christmas on the Farm with … Farmer Jason backs holiday classics (“Away in a Manger”) with buoyant originals (“Santa Drove a Big John Deere”). It’s the fourth album from the Emmy-winning entertainer, who will deliver a holiday-themed show at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville on Saturday (Dec. 13).

Better known as the leader of seminal Nashville rock band Jason and the Scorchers, Ringenberg spoke with CMT Edge about his new Christmas collection for children.

“I wanted a 50/50 split between the classics and good, new Christmas music,” he explains. “I went in thinking that way and I think that’s important. Plus, I don’t know that I’m talented enough to make a whole record of standards that stands up to other Christmas records.”

CMT Edge: Why were you compelled to do a Christmas album?

Ringenberg: (laughs) Well, I’ve always wanted to do one. I love Christmas. I’m a family guy with kids, too, and it seemed like a really good time to do a Christmas record. So, I went for it.

Tell the story behind writing “Christmas on the Farm.”
Right off the bat, I knew I needed an intro that was snappy and catchy and harkened to the openers on my other Farmer Jason records, and so I had the concept in mind before I started writing the song. I knew I was going to write an opener with that title.

Describe the greatest challenge in writing a children’s holiday song.
Like all kids music, you have to follow the prime directive: Be as catchy as the Beatles. (laughs) It really has to stick in kids’ heads. That’s the whole key with children’s music. Also, it has to be very repetitive. Having kids myself, I knew that any children’s song has to be catchy and repetitive. I tried to do that and hopefully I succeeded.

Explain how you approached interpreting “Away in a Manger.”
“Away in a Manger” has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs. I like the connections in the song to the rural story of Christmas. All through writing and making the record, I was struck by how farming and rural life was part of the Christmas story. I think “Away in a Manger” shows that connection and sums it up probably better than any Christmas standard there is.

Describe singing the song with your daughters on that song.
Oh, it was magic. I loved that. I knew Camille was a talented musician, but I never really knew that Addie Rose was that good of a singer. She’s never really sung much in public, but she stepped up to that mic and you could really hear it right there in the studio. It was a really moving experience. I knew Camille would nail it. She’s a really great musician, quite good.

Are they going into music for a living?
You never know, but, no, I don’t think. I think they have other plans. Watching their own father’s trials and tribulations — a lot of tribulations — they’ve seen the man behind the curtain. They know it’s not all peaches and cream.

Most importantly: How do you do “Jingle Bells” without going, “Oh, man, there’s no way I can I do this better …”?
(laughs) That is the truth. It’s the most famous Christmas song there is, but that one was included purely for the children. I had to look at it like, “What is my 4- and 5-year-old audience going to like?” To them, “Jingle Bells” is not a song that’s been done over and over again. It’s a new song to those kids. So, they want to hear it and they want to hear Farmer Jason doing it. Also, there are farming connections from “Jingle Bells” to what I’m doing as Farmer Jason.

Explain how important all the between-song storytelling is throughout the album.
For Farmer Jason, it’s fundamentally important. I’ve always done that on all my records. It really annoys some people, but kids really dig that. They actually even memorize the little stories I tell. So, I knew I had to do that with the Christmas story and make the farming connection on a Christmas record.

Is educating a job requirement as a children’s songwriter, or do you just enjoy telling stories?
Both. I enjoy talking to kids. I’m also proud that they learn something from my music. It’s not just entertainment. I do think there’s some educational value to it.

Describe your favorite thing about the holidays in Nashville.
Entertainment is in our DNA, part of our genes. So, to be around Nashville around the holidays does bump up the spirit, I think. You drive out to Opryland and see the beautiful decorations and see all the parades and stuff going on in town. It enriches the Christmas experience.

The second part of Jason’s In Search of a Song interview focus’ on Farmer Jason and his solo albums.

Jason Ringenberg was recently interviewed for In Search of a Song a National Public Radio show that delves deep into a songwriter’s history and influences. “I think this could one of the best radio interviews I have ever done. It truly captures much of went on behind the scenes all those years.” Listen to part one here, part two will air next month.