Once upon a time, Jason Ringenberg brought loud guitars to country music, long before they were standard accompaniment. And when Uncle Tupelo was not yet a twinkle in the eyes of Jeff Tweedy or Jay Farrar, Ringenberg helped build the foundation for what emerged as alt-country, a tempestuous mix of roots and rock that presaged the rise of Americana within indie rock.
If critical plaudits were redeemable for cash, Ringenberg might have retired to Beverly Hills decades ago. But trailblazing can be a poorly compensated career path, and Ringenberg's beloved Scorchers called it quits a dozen years ago. He still calls the farm home.
After missing the big-time with his brash country-rock act, though, Ringenberg stumbled into it on a smaller stage—one designed for the real kids, in fact. Between solo albums, this son of an Illinois hog farmer recorded songs he'd originally written for his young daughters. The tunes became the 2003 children's album, A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason, a sudden and surprising success for an aging musical lifer. Ringenberg now had a big, new audience, even if its members had yet to enter elementary school.
Ringenberg is about to issue his fourth album under his agricultural guise, Christmas on the Farm with Farmer Jason. He still nurtures a smaller-scale solo career on the side, though it's been nearly a decade since he released a new record under his own name. Still, sometimes both acts—Jason Ringenberg and Farmer Jason—hit the road together, just as they'll do this year with an after-Thanksgiving stop in Carrboro. We asked Ringenberg and Farmer Jason for their thoughts on five words and learned that sometimes the best way to grow up is to stand in front of a room full of kids.
The definition of success is much different for me than it is for Farmer Jason, because I think the goals with Jason Ringenberg and Jason and the Scorchers were much bigger than they are with Farmer Jason. The fact that it has become bigger is quite interesting and a paradox for me to deal with in my most schizophrenic moments.
The Scorchers especially, the goals were huge for the band; me and the people around the band really felt that it could be a major worldwide success. That never happened. What we did have success doing was connecting with a loyal core group of fans that have stayed with us for over 30 years.
The last 15 years, I've had a great run in music. I did it mostly solo touring around with my acoustic guitar. I had the best time playing shows all over the world—in crazy places in Ireland, Finland, Alaska, Australia and the outback. Lately, I just like spending time with my teenage daughters, because they're at such a crazy and wonderful, high-energy time in their lives. Now I can relate to them as adults even if they're just getting ready for school.
The biggest word, for sure. I'm a musician, so I've learned so many lessons that I wouldn't know where to start. I've thought I should write a book entitled, How To Succeed In The Music Business Without Even Lying. Enjoy the ride as much as you possibly can, because anything but that is out of your control. So much in the music business is beyond your control, so you better enjoy the good times and the odd moments.
On my favorite Jason and the Scorchers record, Halcyon Times, "Golden Days" was one of the lead tracks. I wrote it with good friends of mine Tommy Womack and Ginger from [British rock band] The Wildhearts. "Golden Days" told the story of a rocker that grows up and has a family and keeps rocking. I think it's one of my best songs, and, no, it's not autobiographical at all.
There's a great feeling when I turn the corner and head up the long lane to my farm. There's a peace knowing it's there and a sense of responsibility I take very seriously. If you have a home and a place of your own and a farm like I do and if you relax too much and take it too easy, nature will overrun you. It does teach you responsibility. Home and responsibility are one in the same a lot of the time for me.
Farmer Jason has been my biggest success, and I've been able to make a living singing to children, to families. It's been the easiest success I've ever had in the music business; it just hasn't been as hard as most things in music are to do.
Any time I can get a whole room of kids together and just rock with them: That's the ultimate version of fun to me. When you get those kids singing along and dancing and jumping up and down and guessing all the songs, it's a magic that is incomparable to anything else. It's like being Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Puff the Magic Dragon all in one person.
The lessons I've learned as Farmer Jason, believe it or not, are quite technical. I've learned to be a better singer, and I've learned to be much more focused on stage. You can't lose your focus for even a second when you're in front of 4-year-olds, not like an adult show. With adults, if you want to tune your guitar or get a drink of water for a minute, you can zone out for a few seconds while the audience zones out, too. With kids, they'll start wandering off. They'll forget who you are. You have to be concentrating the entire time you're on stage. I've also become a much better singer. I enunciate better and hit my notes better. I make them count. You have to really communicate when you're singing to 4-year-olds.
The beautiful days of summer when everything is green and the sun is shining beautifully. It's not hot, but it's not cold. The garden is blooming, and the animals are all happy out on the farm. Those are the golden days to me.
Home to me is always a big picture. I love my family, and I love my original family farm. I still go up there a lot. That's still a home to me. A home is a physical thing where my land is, my barn is, my animals are, all that. But also, home is wherever I am with my family. As I grow older, that's more my definition of home.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reap or sow"