On paper, there aren’t a lot of parallels between Col. Charles Young — the first black man to achieve such a rank in the U.S. Army in addition to becoming the first black U.S. national park superintendent — and the Ramones, four punk rock raconteurs from New York.
The two found a connection, however, in the mind of Jason Ringenberg, who kickstarted the writing process for his latest record, “Stand Tall,” while in the shadow of the Charles Young sequoia tree in California’s Sequoia National Park.
Ringenberg, the Nashville musician who blazed trails as the namesake of the pre-Americana outfit Jason and the Scorchers, had been asked to serve as the park’s artist-in-residence, and when he went west, he told The Daily Times recently, he had no intention of getting a new record out of the experience. Young and the Ramones, however, combined on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas to change everything.
“I knew that with having that amount of time out there, something might happen, but I didn’t really predict it on that level,” said Ringenberg, who performs at Sweet P’s Downtown Dive on Tuesday. “I didn’t really think that level of songwriting was happening or that that many good songs would come out of it. But I was underneath the Charles Young Tree when I wrote ‘God Bless the Ramones’ right on the spot. That’s when I knew something special was happening with that residency.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer why I would think of the Ramones when I’m reading about the story of Charles Young. I have great respect for the Ramones, and they were a life-changing band for me, and Col. Young changed a lot of lives as well, so maybe that’s the parallel.”
That Ringenberg drew inspiration from such a sacred place of natural beauty is no surprise; that he used it to channel a tale from his own past — when the Scorchers received an out-of-the-blue phone call in 1982 that pitched them an opening slot on a Ramones tour of Texas — is proof that the guy whose main musical endeavor these days is children’s music hasn’t lost any of his grown-up edge. Ringenberg formed his first band, Shakespeare’s Riot, in 1978 while a student at Southern Illinois University. He developed an on-stage persona as part Hank Williams Sr. and part Iggy Pop, and after the band folded, he moved to Nashville three years later. Jason and the Nashville Scorchers had only been in existence for a year when Ringenberg got the call about the tour.
“We wondered why it was so easy to get that gig, being an unknown band and this cat from New York calling me out of the blue, but the four of us really didn’t think about it,” he said. “I don’t think a three-minute song could explain how much we learned on that tour. We learned that not everybody is going to like what you do, and that you’ve got to stand up and take the heat and take the shots if you’re going to make it in music.
“Before we even hit the first note at those shows, we were bombarded with trash. We were unknown, so it wasn’t because they didn’t like the Scorchers — they were going to do that to anybody. And we learned right off the bat to stand up for ourselves. We reacted on a visceral level: ‘You guys think you’re tough? We’ve seen grandmothers in Tennessee throw more trash than you!’ That just enraged them more, and made them respect us more, actually. But yeah, we picked a fight with 3,000 people every night.”
As the ’80s progressed, the band found national acclaim and even wound up in London, where one reviewer called the band’s show one of the five best the city had ever scene. The song “White Lies” got MTV airplay and the band’s albums were picked up by both EMI and A&M, but by the end of the ’80s, the guys took a break before reuniting in 1993 for another five-year run.
Aside from a few one-off shows here and there, however, Jason and the Scorchers seemed destined for the history books before releasing another record, “Halcyon Times,” in 2010. Ringenberg has mostly focused on his Farmer Jason persona, which began with a 2003 children’s record, and he hasn’t released a solo album under his proper name since 2004’s “Empire Builders.” According to his bio, “Nashville’s greatest 20th century rock ’n’ roll frontman spent a lot of time growing tomatoes on the farm, raising a family, and hosting annual easter egg hunts, giving wagon rides to kids who never saw him and the Scorchers play amphitheaters with Bob Dylan, or shake Conan O’Brien’s hand on late-night television.”
The invite from Sequoia National Park was too good to pass up, however: a month in a mountain cabin, playing a few park concerts and the rest of the time to do whatever he wanted. Standing beneath the Charles Young Tree, he realized that what he wanted was to make a new Ringenberg record.
“I didn’t expect it, and I think I even appreciated it more because it hadn’t happened for so long,” he said. “The day I wrote ‘God Bless the Ramones,’ I wrote three songs that day. I’ve never even written one song in a day; usually it takes me several weeks. It was exciting to have all those come out at once.”
Back home in Tennessee, he instinctually pivoted away from the expectation of a dreamy, thoughtful, sensitive singer-songwriter album and went back to his roots, he added. Guys like John the Baptist and John Muir may hold reverential places in history, but in their own ways, they were rebels, Ringenberg said, and rock ‘n’ roll made for a better tribute template than folk.
“I wanted it to rock,” he said simply. “John Muir has had volumes of books written about him, but he’s never had a rock ‘n’ roll song written about him. And John the Baptist, he’s the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll rebel from the New Testament. When I wrote that song (“John the Baptist Was a Real Humdinger”), I thought, ‘Why has nobody written about him? What great subject matter for a song!’”
Tuesday’s Sweet P’s gig is part of the “Trailer Park Live” series, held in the outdoor wine and beer bar behind the restaurant. East Tennessee is a familiar stomping ground for Ringenberg, who plans to tour behind “Stand Tall” for the foreseeable future before getting back to Farmer Jason.
“This whole project has been a wonderful experience from top to bottom, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting back into adult music,” he said. “I’m having a whole lot of fun.”