Jason Ringenberg and the Nashville Scorchers burnt a hole in Nashville in early 1982 with a country-punk sound that was blasphemous to honky-tonk purists and a blast to everybody else. One of that band's most combustible numbers was "Broken Whiskey Glass," a song described by Rick Hull in the liner notes to the CD reissue of Reckless Country Soul (the quartet's debut, single-session EP and the original home of "Broken Whiskey Glass") as "about chasing an ersatz American dream onto the broad but shoulderless highway to excess."
It's also proven to be a song with multiple personalities and lives: Its first reincarnation came on 1985's Lost and Found, complete with a new opening verse. More than a decade later, a live version served as the centerpiece of the first disc of a two-CD collection, Midnight Roads & Stages Seen. And in 2007, it reappeared again, this time as an acoustic duet between Ringenberg and The Woodbox Gang, a restless-and-rustic outfit from his old stomping grounds of Southern Illinois.
For most of those years, Ringenberg's twin brother, Farmer Jason (if you question the likelihood of twin brothers having the same first name, please consider that "Farmer" is a perfectly fine first name, and "Jason" makes a smashing middle name), tended to the chickens and kept his distance from the stage. All that changed early in the '00s, though, when Farmer Jason wandered off the back forty, out of his twin's shadow, and into an incredibly successful career as a children's music-maker. These days, Farmer has an Emmy Award, as well as a catalog of animal-stocked, kid- and grown-up-friendly tunes, highlighted by the—well, combustible works here, too—"Punk Rock Skunk."
The Independent Weekly took time with both twins to discuss the two songs in question. There was even a whiff of sibling rivalry in the air. Pretty sure it'll be around when both bros play separate venues on consecutive days in Raleigh, too.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: "Broken Whiskey Glass" has one of my favorite lines in rock 'n' roll—and in the song's initial incarnation, one of the greatest opening lines: "Went to church in your party dress." And it's also one of the best takes on the whole Saturday night/ Sunday morning dichotomy. What are your remembrances are of that line's origins and how the song grew from there?
JASON RINGENBERG: First, I'll say thank you for noticing that. Actually, Steve Earle was quoted as saying that line was his favorite opening line in rock 'n' roll. I was always so honored by that. Anyway, it was in the really early days of the band, and I think it was one of the first or second songs that I wrote for Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. I remember [bassist] Jeff [Johnson] had been out with one of his girlfriends. They'd been up all night just rocking out. They had all these crazy clothes on and stuff, and in those days, crazy clothes could get you beat up in Nashville. Anyway, they'd been up all night, all hopped up on who knows what. It was Sunday morning, and they went to this old black church, with all this great singing, in their party clothes. They were the only white people there, I believe, but they fit in. I remember him telling me about that, and I guess that was the germ of that idea.
One thought I always have when listening to the song—specifically, "There lies Jason..."—is how it must be strange to sing your own name, especially when it's in an epitaph?
Yeah, I suppose so. But in those days, anything went. There were no limits or no self-consciousness about anything. You just sort of went for it. And art was art for art's sake. But, in general, that line was allegorical, a metaphor, more than it was literal.
Is the song about anyone in particular, or are there pieces of various people throughout?
It's a composite of a lot of different experiences that were happening to me at the time. And they were quite real, most of those lines were. I mean, it wasn't fictional. Most of those lines were about specific people or events. The primary concept for me in the song, looking back and as it's grown upon me, is the intellect vs. instinct argument—the eternal battle between those two things, you know? And that song definitely comes down on the side of instinct, for sure.
The song is possibly the best known in the Jason & the Scorchers catalog. Any thoughts on why that is? When you're writing and recording a song, does it ever hit you that, "Yep, this one is going to become a signature song"?
Yeah, I think it can, although you always have a certain enthusiasm for every recording. And it's remarkable to me, and the older I get in music, the more I see that: every song everybody records, they always think it's their best one. But with "Broken Whiskey Glass," we knew we had a special song with it right from the start. For one thing, it didn't follow any sort of format. There was no verse-chorus, sing-along, sort of rote format to it and the way it was written. I remember the first thing Jeff said when he heard it was this song doesn't follow the standard procedures, and he really liked that. And I suspect he was probably right.
And you were breaking a lot of rules, musically, at the time.
And I think that song sort of sums up a lot of that rule-breaking. Nowadays, of course, it's pretty passé, what we were doing, but back in those days it was quite revolutionary. It could be violent at times, even, the reactions that people had to it. And I think "Broken Whiskey Glass" summed that up.
The song first appeared on the Reckless Country Soul EP, and it's been revisited twice more for studio recordings: on Lost and Found with a new opening verse, and much more recently with the Woodbox Gang on Best Tracks and Side Tracks. Can you talk a little about the second and third versions?
Yes, the new verse changed it a lot really. It made it much more intense and actually much darker, I think. Made it much more dramatic. I don't know if the different versions show growth of the song, but they definitely show the versatility of the song, the way it was able to work in formats as varied as the real early Scorchers into the mature Scorchers and then with a band from Southern Illinois that had never heard the song before. (laughs) I think they show what the song is capable of doing.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Sure, the rhyme is there, but why else is a skunk a good candidate for embracing punk rock music?
FARMER JASON: Well, I think the skunk is such a rock 'n' roll animal, you know. It's really colorful. It just doesn't run around in its black fur. It has a cool white stripe. I mean, that's so punk rock. And it smells, and it just doesn't care. The punk rock skunk just doesn't care that it smells, and it just doesn't care what you think about that. And that's sort of the central theme of all great punk rock music.
You engage in a little music-world commentary near the song's end: "If I smell a little/ Well, just get over it/ A lot of singers smell/ And they end up with a hit." Now I won't ask you to name names, but can you elaborate a little?
For a children's song, I think we pushed the boundary about as far as you can push it. It's interesting, but even 5-year-olds get it. They get the sarcasm in that verse. They're not quite sure exactly what it means, but they get it. And I think it's important in children's music to not be too scared to be radical, and I think this song does that, without a doubt. It's surprising: I was told I should not put it on the record, and I was told I shouldn't make a video out of it. And it's been proven over and over again that kids just love the song. Not just parents love it, but kids love the song.
At a Farmer Jason show, you have the best seat in the house, overlooking the kiddie mosh pit when the "hey ho, let's go" really gets going. What are some of your favorite sights witnessed from that vantage point during "Punk Rock Skunk?"
[Laughs.] You had to ask that, and I have to answer. Well, the best one was—and I'm not sure quite how to say this. During that song, everything was getting rocking, and it'd about reached the point in the song with the "hey ho!" moment. A little girl, I suppose she was about three or four, just drops her pants and does her business on the dance floor. [Laughs again.] Her parents weren't there. They were at the bar, having a drink and having Farmer Jason watch their kids for a half hour. No one knew exactly what to do at that moment. OK, I've seen a lot of crazy stuff in my life playing music, but at that moment, I really didn't know what to do. Do I stop the song? Do I tell someone at the club, "OK, we have a little mess?" I don't want to embarrass the little child or her parents, so we just sort of let it go. It's rock 'n' roll, I guess. That right there is about as punk rock as you can get. That outdoes anything Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious ever did.
What song from the Jason & the Scorchers catalog or Jason's solo catalog would you be most likely to record and why, Farmer Jason?
That's an excellent question. I would say, "Help! There's a Fire." I actually sing that sometimes in my shows. The rhythm of it, I just think it's really fun. And the whole "baby" line, and talking about, "Let it burn, Mama." There are connections there.
Now I was going to ask Jason that same question about your catalog, but I think we know the answer because he recorded an even more rawked-up version of "Punk Rock Skunk" on Best Tracks and Side Tracks. Were you okay with that, and what do you think of the results?
Well, this is something I've lived with all my life. My brother is rather insecure about a lot of things, and he's especially insecure these days because of the success that I'm having. Last fall, of course, the Scorchers got that little Americana Music Association Award, and he was really happy. But then, of course, I got the Emmy Award here a few weeks ago. And, face it, the Emmy Award is just a lot bigger than the Americana Music Association Award, and it's hard for him to accept things like that.
When he recorded his Best Tracks record, I think it's very telling that he had to do a Farmer Jason song to make the record really good. But I have never had to record a Jason Ringenberg song. That's never happened. So I think that definitely tells the story here: He had to record one of my songs to make his record better than it would have been ... without it. Although having said that, his version of it isn't as good as mine. No question about it.
Jason Ringenberg plays with Country Music Hall of Famer Charlie Louvin at the Berkeley Cafe Friday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 the day of the show. And on the 28th, Farmer Jason has a 1 p.m. show at Tir Na Nog.