If you've ever seen Jason Ringenberg do a solo show or front country-punk pioneers Jason and the Scorchers, you know that, to put it mildly, he is a bit animated on stage. Imagine a pogo stick pilot experiencing problems with both pitch and yaw.
When Ringenberg inhabits his newly created alter ego, kids-music artist Farmer Jason, he remains much more calm and tethered. "I don't quite dance around, because I'm not performing really," explains Ringenberg. "When you're doing a children's concert, involvement is the big issue. So that's what I focus on."
As any kindergarten teacher will tell you, focus is key when dealing with the 7 and under set. "People think that it's easier to do the children's show, but that's actually not the case," Ringenberg offers. "The concentration level for a children's show is very high; you have to really be on it. If you lose control of a roomful of kids, you have a real problem."
With three young daughters of his own, Ringenberg had plenty of prep work for Farmer Jason. In fact, his new family was the impetus for the Farmer Jason record. "I was touring so much behind All Over Creation (his solo album from 2002), I mean all over the world, all the time. Toured more than I ever had in my career," says Ringenberg. "With my young kids, I thought it'd be a nice idea to have a record they could listen to with me." Enter A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason.
Okay, first point: Ringenberg comes by the title "farmer" honestly, having grown up on a hog farm in Illinois. And these days, in the Nashville area, he has a pasture and a barn and a small collection of animals, including a pony, a pig, and some chickens, all of which get to star in their own song on A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason. Sure, maybe Ringenberg's bending the truth a bit when he sings about "A Guitar Pickin' Chicken;" however, he's sharing solid advice on "Whoa There Pony!" when he instructs youngsters to make sure their pony has plenty to drink and to brush its thick coat regularly. Adult listeners may find themselves thinking, "You know, that sounds like the maintenance required for Scorchers guitarist Warner Hodges during the '80s."
Which leads to the second point: A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason often ends up being as much fun for the grown-ups as it is for the kids. "There's some pretty good picking on the record," shares Ringenberg, just the kind of understatement you'd expect from a gentleman farmer. With frequent collaborators George Bradfute (guitars, bass clarinet, cello, viola, and various animal noises) and Fats Kaplin (fiddle, accordion, lap steel, viola, harmonica, banjo, and Jew's harp) joining Ringenberg, the CD is a festival of fun songs for all ages.
But perhaps what is most striking about the new record, underlined by the adorable photo of Ringenberg and his three girls on the back cover of the CD booklet, is that he has successfully made the transition from rock 'n' roll road warrior and everything that goes with that to family guy--a transformation that a lot of musicians aren't able to make. How did he pull that off? "Well, this is going to sound like sort of a Barbara Walters kind of answer," he says, "but I had such a good upbringing by my parents. It keeps going back to them. I was around some pretty crazy stuff, and I could have gone that way really easily and could have ended up another casualty. I never attribute it to any personal strength. I think it's more just the example my parents set."
As he tours in Farmer Jason mode, Ringenberg keeps encountering people who saw him perform back in those crazy-stuff days--the, "Hey, I saw you play with R.E.M. in Athens in 1985" crowd.
"Most of the people who are getting Farmer Jason now are my old fans," says Ringenberg," adding with a wry chuckle, "I hope it develops past that, but right now it's mostly old fans. I had the best experience in Michigan last month where a grandparent came up and said, 'Here's my grandson. He loves Farmer Jason. And would you mind signing my Lost & Found album?' It was so cool. It was the coolest."
Farmer Jason revs up his tractor tunes at the New Hope Community Building, 4120 Whitfield Rd. in Chapel Hill, on Saturday, Feb. 28. Two shows: 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 and can be reserved at www.afternoonnap.org .)
When writing about Chicago-based children's artist Justin Roberts last year, I listed some adult-friendly kids records, including releases from They Might Be Giants and Dan Zanes (veteran of Jason and the Scorchers contemporaries, the Del Fuegos) as well as compilations from Bloodshot Records and the team behind WFMU's wonderful "Greasy Kids Stuff" show (see our online archives at www.indyweek.com/durham/2003-04-09/music.html.) Below are a few more CDs to add to the list. --Rick Cornell
Tahra Time Tunes and Tahra Time Tunes 2
Tahra Dergee, Nashville-based host of the "Tahra Time" show (and a guest vocalist on A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason), helped inspire Ringenberg as he was creating Farmer Jason. "We listened to these probably several thousand times," he says, "and I always enjoy listening because there are some neat things happening musically."
The Slippery Ballerina
From Casino Music, the folks who also gave us Not Dogs, Too Simple (A Tale of Two Kitties), comes this tale featuring the vocal talents of Kevin Kinney, Susan Cowsill, Moe Tucker, "Wreckless Eric" Goulden, and, in one of his last recordings, Ian Dury.
The Best of Schoolhouse Rock
Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks
A nostalgia trip for members of my generation and still a fine way for kids to accidentally learn something. The first features the original Saturday morning recordings, while the other calls on the likes of Ween, Moby, and Biz Markie to take a crack at 'em.
You're Nice People You Are
It's always felt to me like there's a certain amount of childlike wonder at the edges of all the music made by New England heroes NRBQ, so a kids record is only a half step away from a proper Q record.