There's something about Southern Illinois (which, as everyone knows, is any place in the state south of Joliet) – its blend of corn-fed conservatism and Bucky Fuller-esque idealism, perhaps – that's made it a fertile region for alt-country troubadours.
Uncle Tupelo (from whence rose Son Volt and Wilco) came from the area as did first of the great cow-punk outfits Jason and Scorchers. Led by yelping Jason Ringenberg, the son of Sheffield, Illinois, hog farmers, the Scorchers provided a stormy mesh of guitar thrash and straight-faced Nashville songwriting that holds up to this day. Their disbanding left a void on the musical scene that in many ways has grown larger with the increased plasticization of commercial country.
Ringenberg has kept a-goin', of course and if his solo material has never quite equaled the punk power of his breakthrough work, there's plenty of strong material to be found in his still-growing catalog. To bring this point home, our man has just put together a two-disc retrospective Best Tracks And Side Tracks (Yep Roc) for our musical education. With 30 cuts to cull through, the set showcases his strengths and weaknesses as a singer/songwriter.
Though the collection is meant to illuminate his work outside the Scorchers, Ringenberg understandably can't resist folding several of the band's more popular songs into the mix. Best Tracks Disc One opens with a fiddle-heavy remake of "Shop It Around" and provides an equally countrified rendition of "Broken Whiskey Glass" as its penultimate track, while the "Side Traces" odds 'n' sods disc gives us a pre-Scorcher rendition of "Help There's A Fire" with comically gawky faux Elvis vocals. If none of these versions make us forget the Scorchers, they still serve to remind us what a sharp songwriter Jason was from the get-go.
Jason is still a strong tunesmith, though there are times when his earnestness intrudes on his songcraft. Best Tracks primarily is devoted to three solo albums (Pocketful of Soul, All Over Creation and Empire Builders), and, of these three, the weaker cuts almost all come from the thematically overburdened Empire. Whether waxing sentimentally about orphan trains and a dying Chief Joseph or over-emphatically recalling the Tuskegee airmen, you can hear the singer struggling to get his ideas across – at the expense of both the ideas and the songs. The only two sampled cuts from Empire that fully work are the ones where he relaxes enough to have some fun: a modernized version of Burl Ives' corn-pone folksiness called "Rainbow Stew" and a galumphing collaboration with Los Straitjackets in tribute to "Link Wray."
Elsewhere the man assays two sweet tributes to his daughters ('Camille" and "Addie Rose"), duets with Steve Earle ("Bible And A Gun") plus offers up a quintet of taut rockers, including the unmatchable "Punk Rock Skunk" from one of his two Farmer Jason children's albums. Of these, a re-recorded "Life of the Party" (redone for the set since contractual craziness kept the original One Foot in the Honky Tonk track from being included) perhaps comes closest to the welcome blasts of the good ol' days, though All Over Creation's sonic collaboration with the Wildhearts, "One Less Heartache," has its own appealing radio friendly bombast.
The Side Tracks set is smaller (ten tracks to the first disc's 20) and definitely more marginal. But it still contains some goodies: an oblique new rocker entitled "The Sailor's Eyes;" an extended remix of a second Farmer Jason track, "Moose on the Loose;" an unjustly rejected track recorded for a Tom T. Hall album, plus a tribute to SIU's favorite son, "Buckminster Fuller We Need You." Though Ringenberg has relocated to the Nashville area, he always remains cognizant of his Midwestern roots. Back on disc one, he even includes a country rocker originally sung for Stace England's Greetings from Cairo, Illinois, lamenting the hard times that have befallen this notorious little lynch burg. Very alt-rootsy, very Southern Illinois . . .