First saw Jason Ringenberg back in the early '80s when he was fronting what was then being called Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (though later the "Nashville" part of that group moniker would be dropped). A skinny Central Illinoisan who could affect a drawl that spoke of deeper southern roots, Ringenberg was as adept at slow country ballads as he was rousing rapid-fire cow-punk. Saw the band live at a cruddy club just before their first full album was released – and I can still see ‘em sending ripples through my beer, hear Jason yowling across the bar with fervid intensity. Dang, but they were a great band.
These days, Jason's relationship with his fellow Scorchers appears to be an on-again/off-again deal, with more of the singer/songwriter's time currently being spent in the persona of Farmer Jason, kid's music performer. His second F-Jas disc, Rockin' in the Forest with Farmer Jason, has recently been released by Kid Rhino alongside a reissue of his 2003 debut A Day at the Farm with. Of the two discs, the second is arguably the more All Ages friendly: fun for kids to listen to without driving adults in the room into poking at their eardrums with an ice pick.
With Farm, you can hear Jason falling back once too often on familiar kiddie records moves ("The Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug," indeed), while Forest more wisely plays to his rootsy songwriting strengths. There are tracks on Forest that – with only a little tweaking (less talk about forest critters, more about broken hearts) – could've easily shown up on a Scorchers disc. "Anarchy in the Pre-K!" the cover cleverly trumpets, bringing up memories of the glory days when a scandal-free Peewee Herman happily coaxed kids on television to "SCREAM REAL LOUD!"
Jason isn't as manic as Peewee, of course, though he clearly takes to his role as children's entertainer with enthusiasm – perhaps a closer analogy might be Riders in the Sky and their untimely ended children's program. Both Farmer Jason discs contain a lot of "Hey, kids!" patter in between songs that I fantasize editing out in the mix-tape of my mind. But for really lame disc talk, check out guest vocalist Todd Snider's Reverend Jim-styled spoken performance on the intro to "He's A Moose on the Loose" (not to be confused with the honkin' Roddy Jackson 45 from 1958). Sounds like Todd just woke up with a really bad hangover – and nobody was around to give him a little Hair of the Dog.
But with songs like "Moose" (a comically New Orleans-y R&B number), the bracingly hard-rockin' "Punk Rock Skunk" (inspirational verse: "I have a leather jacket, my jeans are full of holes/If I lived in England, I would be on the dole."), the Johnny Horton-esque "Catfish Song," and the speed country nonsense song "Opossum in a Pocket," Forest is on more solid ground. The Forest band – Nashville session folk like soundman/guitarist George Bradfute and drummer Steve Ebe – are dutifully diligent when it comes to straddling genres, and there are some sweet musical moments here: a gorgeous harmonica line on "Arrowhead," some fine country swing fiddlin' in "A Butterfly Speaks," the apt use of pennywhistle in the album's shanty opener. I'm not a big 'un for songs with kid vocalists in it (don't much like kid sidekicks in comics either), so the Bo Diddley beaten "Forest Rhymes" didn't do much for me. But I was amused to hear the "'Little Farmers" chanting, "Hey-Ho, let's go!" in the skunk song – the Ramones, lest we forget, had a clear affinity for bubblegum.
Both discs' lyrics range from silly to overly earnest (even with the Scorchers, Ringenberg could occasionally be too sober for his own good), though, thankfully, the latter moments are kept to a minimum. Forest's funniest moment comes during the break in "Opossum," when our hero gets interrupted in the midst of a solo by his producer and realizes he’s been playin' the wrong-keyed harmonica: "Jimenentlies!" he moans. "It's supposed to be an F harmonica and I'm playing an A-Flat!" Yes, kids, even Farmer Jason makes mistakes.