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Kid-friendly rustic rockabilly
Since 2002, Jason Ringenberg has been combining dual musical careers. By night, as he has done for the last 30 years, he fronts the punk-infused rockabilly outfit Jason & The Scorchers, but by day he dons dungarees and becomes Farmer Jason, playing songs for children in schools.
On his alter ego’s second album, Ringenberg invites some famous friends to join in the fun, with Mike Mills (“… from one of history’s great American rock bands, REM!”) advocating regular exercise on the jaunty Take A Hike, and Cheap Trick’s Tom Peterson signing up for cave exploration on Spelunker. Naturally, all these activities are to be done with the express permission of, or accompaniment by, a parent, the safety first message prevalent throughout.
As a celebration of the outdoor life, it’s one long fun ride, with Farmer Jason leading a countrified hillbilly charge on Skating Along, his own young daughters on backing vocals, and playing splendidly catchy songs about wildlife (The Moose Lives Where?, Dison The Bison). Educational without being stuffy, cute without being mawkish, Ringenberg cuts a fine figure throughout as troubadour, tour guide and teacher.
Reviewed by Terry Staunton
Back in 2002 Jason Ringenberg, leader of Jason and the Scorchers, the band that virtually invented the punk rock/country fusion that proved highly successful, developed an alter-ego, Farmer Jason, so he could record songs aimed at educating and appealing to young children. 2003 found Ringenberg releasing the first fruits of this new project under the title ‘A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason’. The album was unusual in that not only did it appeal to its target audience but it also captured the hearts of many parents too.
Ringenberg had achieved the impossible, creating a children’s character whose songs could also be enjoyed by an older generation. Mixing folk and country the songs were, without a doubt, aimed directly at pre-school children but they were far removed from the banal, repetitive and annoying novelty songs that are usually produced for children. Adults would struggle not to sing along and it was impossible not to be carried away by the sheer joy and enthusiasm Ringenberg brought to the songs. In many ways it was the first album made for children that parents could (and did) also play in the car when driving alone.
Ringenberg followed up the Farmer Jason debut with ‘Rockin’ In The Forest’ in 2006 which followed the same path. Songs that again had their roots in the country/folk idiom were injected with so much fun and tunes so catchy you just couldn’t help but join in made this second Farmer Jason album another success.
While there’s little doubt that Farmer Jason could release another half dozen albums covering this same ground without losing any of his younger audience some parents were no doubt wondering just how far Ringenberg could take this project and if it would continue to appeal to his older fans. For his third album under the Farmer Jason moniker, ‘Nature Jams’, Ringenberg has roped in a number of well-known musicians to help out and keep things fresh and even more appealing for the parents.
It’s a smart move, looking down the list of guests will have most music fans wanting to buy a copy for their own use, never mind one for the kids. Mike Mills from R.E.M., the Saw Doctors, Suzy Bogguss, members of The Black Crowes and Cheap Trick and Brandi Carlile are just some of the artists helping out, Ringenberg has even got Iris DeMent singing on one track which has got to be worth the price of the album alone.
Listening to music, whether we realize it at the time or not, educates us, I’d be the first to say that I’ve learnt just as much from music as I did from my years at school, and with each guest artist introducing their song with a short dialogue explaining the subject of the following song I’m sure very young children will benefit greatly from these introductions.
While these short pieces will either raise a smile with adults or make them cringe (Mike Mills explaining that he keeps in shape by hiking still raises a smile after a dozen or so plays) it’s the actual songs that will make this album essential for both children and adults. The Mills song, ‘Take A Hike’ is a typical jolly Farmer Jason song, another sing-along country infused pop confection which obvious shades of R.E.M. mixed in, and, if the lyrics weren’t so obviously aimed at children, it wouldn’t have sounded totally out of place on a mid-period R.E.M. album. Mills turns in a brilliant vocal performance and his voice gels brilliantly with Ringenberg’s making you long for more of the same. The walls of guitars from both Joe Blanton and Warner E. Hodges simply have to be heard. All this on a kids song…
‘Well Oh Whale’ is the Saw Doctors doing what they do best. No other band around today can capture a party atmosphere on tape as well as these guys. Davy Carton’s unmistakable vocals are all over the chorus, which again will have you singing along by the second verse. Another track that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the guest artists’ own albums.
It’s not all jaunty sing-along songs on ‘Nature Jams’ though. They are more delicate, thoughtful tracks, ‘Meadowlark In Central Park’, the Suzy Bogguss contribution, boasts one of Ringenberg’s prettiest melodies while highlighting the fact that even in large cities there can still be wildlife around to be appreciated. With possibly the most affecting use of a recorder ever in a rock song, this particular song will definitely appeal to listeners of all ages.
While it’s the actual songs that appeal to Ringenberg’s fans, it must be said that many of the spoken introductions to each song, while aimed squarely at the kids, do stand up to repeated listening. It’s obvious that some thought has gone into each introduction; The Jason and the Scorchers track, ‘The Glacier’ is a good example with Scorcher’s drummer Pontus Snibb explaining to the young audience just what these massive lumps of ice actually are, before launching into a fine slab of the Scorchers’ unique take of rock and roll.
With a total of sixteen tracks, every one should be singled out for some reason, ‘Manatee’ features Hank Williams III on vocals and Tommy Ramone on mandolin. ‘No Place Like The Woods’ was written and produced by Grammy award winning bass player Victor Wooten and will be many youngsters’ introduction to the jazz/funk that has made Wooten such a highly respected musician. It’s not the type of song that you would expect to find on an album of children’s songs or on a Ringenberg album, but it works so well here and goes some way to show how Ringenberg has developed his Farmer Jason character since 2002.
It’s not all country and folk now and ‘Nature Jams’ diversity will educate children even more. With all the artists donating their royalty shares to conservation causes this really is an excellent project.
As usual the whole package on this Farmer Jason CD is brilliant. It’s bright, interesting, fun and informative and this time there’s even a DVD included featuring fun-filled videos of four of the songs on ‘Nature Jams’. That will not only keep the kids glued to the TV screen but will break out the smiles on the faces of any adults in the room.
‘Nature Jams’ is without a doubt the best collection yet from Farmer Jason and it’s not just for the kids. Ringenberg is currently touring the UK and Ireland. and at some venues is performing as Farmer Jason in the afternoon before taking the stage as Jason Ringenberg later in the evening. I’ve a feeling that those afternoon shows, despite Ringenberg always performing brilliantly under his own name, will be enjoyed just as much by the adults accompanying their children, or even more so than the evening shows!
by Malcolm Carter
The former (and possibly ongoing since their 2010 reunion) frontman with Jason & the Scorchers, as you’ll likely know, Ringenberg’s staple musical diet is rebel rock country with gunslinger guitars, yeehaw vocals and basic good time tunes interleaved with more melancholic balladry. Digging back into his Scorchers past, you’ll find a wealth of such great tunes as Broken Whiskey Glass, Blanket Of Sorrow, Harvest Moon, Hot Nights In Georgia and Golden Ball and Chain as well as their tear it up covers of Lost Highway and Absolutely Sweet Marie.
Four solo albums have also provided their fair share of favourites, among them The Last Of The Neon Cowboys, his cover of Steve Earle’s Bible & A Gun, Chief Joseph’s Last Dream and Trail Of Tears, the latter two both songs about the American-Indian experience.
Rather stretching the definition, he’s appearing here as part of the Birmingham Jazz Festival playing a couple of free solo shows, though just because he’s one man and a guitar don’t think he won’t have the place jumping.
Ironically, however, it’s his alter ego as dungarees-wearing hayseed Farmer Jason that’s brought him more success than his band or solo endeavours, releasing albums and winning an Emmy for his It’s Farmer Jason public broadcast TV series, all devoted to teaching children (pre-school and primary) about farming, animals and respecting nature and the land.
This may all sound a bit Tweenies, but Ringenberg doesn’t dumb down the music, using bluegrass, Western sing, and Texas country rock n roll to educate the kids. He’s just released his third album, Nature Jams, which is pretty much about what you’d imagine with titles like Buffalo Or Bison, The Moose Lives Where?, Meadowlark In Central Park and Manatee. What you might not expect, however, is to find him joined bythe likes of REM’s Mike Mills, the Saw Doctors, Suzy Bogguss, Brandi Carlile or, making a very rare recording appearance in Prairie Riddles, Iris De Ment.
The subject of some of the songs might not mean a great deal to Birmingham’s inner city sprogs, but his free music workshops should be great fun.
7pm. Free. The Lord Clifden, Great Hampton Street Hockley + Wed 11. 8pm. Free. The Walkabout, Broad St. Farmer Jason Wed 11. 12.30pm. Free. Mailbox
Farmer Jason is in fact Jason Ringenberg the former leader of alt.country Nashville rockers Jason & The Scorchers, who has put his time, money and creative energy into a children’s project that is a musical celebration of the outdoors.
More than that, it’s a cleverly segued 16 tracks that pairs him with an array of special guests including REM’s Mike Mills on harmony guitars with Dan Baird’s ‘sage guitar advice’ on ‘Take A Hike’, the Saw Doctors who contribute the up tempo big twang guitar of the harmony laden ‘Well Oh Whale’ and Louisiana’s Terrence Simian on Bayou Boogie’ complete with Creole French.
The various guests cleverly reference their respective geographic areas, such as the prairie home of Iris de Dement on ‘Prairie Riddles’ and Webb Wilder (formerly of the hard rocking The Beatnecks) who adds an explanatory poem on ‘Buffalo or Bison’ and teams up with Steve Gorman from The Black Crowes on ‘Dison the Bison’. Ruthie Foster as always adds some telling vocals on ‘Spelunker’, better known as pot holing.
Yep, there’s plenty of great ideas and unfettered creativity and a DVD thrown in, and on the evidence of the DVD this audio visual double pack is aimed at some very young recipients for whom the guests would mean little. But, no matter, it’s a cleverly thought out, well intentioned project that deserves a home in junior class or library near you. ***
Review by Pete Feenstra
It would be a tough quiz question: what do renowned writer Jo Nesbo, country singer Iris DeMent and REM rock star Mike Mills have in common? The answer is that they all feature on a very quirky but enjoyable album of American children’s music from Jason Ringenberg. He’s probably better known as the star frontman of rock band Jason & The Scorchers but Ringenberg’s alter ego, ‘Farmer Jason’, has released an album spin-off from his Emmy award-winning TV show Farmer Jason called Farmer Jason and Buddies: Nature Jams.
It’s real music not cheesy children’s fare, and includes some remarkable collaborations. Tommy Ramone; Hank Williams III; Brandi Carlisle; Webb Wilder and Steve Gorman from the Black Crowes; Suzy Bogguss; The Saw Doctors; Tom Petersson (Cheap Trick); Terrance Simien; and the offbeat Todd Snider all play on the album. Snider is on a track called The Moose Lives Where?, which also features the backing vocals of Norwegian adult thriller and children’s writer Nesbo.
The music from Ringenberg – who is touring the UK in July – is diverse and entertaining, the lyrics and messages worthy. And it’s fun – especially the poem called Buffalo and Bison, by Webb Wilder, which contains fun lyrics such as:
They’re really the same thing,
Big and brown and woolly,
but, don’t ask them to sing,
The herd’s the word,
You’d be a nerd,
to act a buff-a-loner,
They’re more inclined to socialise,
from Maine to Arizona
By Martin Chilton, Digital Culture Editor