- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

Labels, as every music writer knows, can be touchy things. One such, "alternative country," has been flogged rather too liberally over the past few years, the problem being that it is used to describe bands that play something more like traditional country.
In a just universe, Shania Twain would be considered alternative country, as her slickly produced, pop-inflected sound bears little resemblance to Hank Williams' or Merle Haggard's.
With Jason Ringenberg, however, the label seems to fit pretty well. Rightly considered a pioneer of the alt-country genre, Nashville's Mr. Ringenberg, who will perform solo tonight at Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington, has fashioned a country music that borrows from the Clash's playbook, a bouncy, rollicking mixture of loud, unschooled intensity, unvarnished guitar tones and, in his lyrics, an angular social sensibility.
Alternative country is "a pretty appropriate term for a lot of people," Mr. Ringenberg says via phone. "It definitely doesn't fit into the cookie cutter of corporate country."
Mainstream country music the radio-cuddly milieu of Faith Hill and Miss Twain is pretty lousy right now, in Mr. Ringenberg's opinion.
"It's kind of on a down cycle, creatively. Lately, I turn stuff on the radio, and there's not too much I like," he says.
Mr. Ringenberg prides himself on stretching the boundaries of country music while remaining true to its roots.
With the 1982 release of its debut EP, "Restless Country Soul," Mr. Ringenberg's band, Jason and the Scorchers, alchemized punk, rockabilly and folk; the result owed as much to Johnny Rotten as it did to Johnny Cash.
The Scorchers' raucous sound later became the template for bands such as Uncle Tupelo, the name of whose 1990 debut album, "No Depression," has become a catch-all moniker for the alt-country sound (see www.nodepression.net).
"We did it first, and we did it best, and I don't think anyone can take that away from us," Mr. Ringenberg says.
The blending of country and rock, a tradition started by the Byrds and Gram Parsons and carried on by the Scorchers, has become fairly commonplace, but Mr. Ringenberg remembers when it was considered almost sacrilegious.
"Twenty years ago, it was quite different, and quite radical," he says. "It elicited violent responses at times."
The reactionary acolytes of traditional country artists such as Hank Williams Jr., he says, were scandalized by the Scorchers' fusing of American roots music and the fringe sounds of punk. Fights in bars and roadhouses were not infrequent.
"A couple times, we were lucky to get out with our skin," Mr. Ringenberg recalls. "Just to walk down the street with a mohawk was a radical statement. To do that and play country music was just beyond most people's ken."
Things are considerably calmer these days.
Mr. Ringenberg mostly tours as a lone troubadour, although he reunited briefly with the Scorchers last July, playing three dates in Texas.
His most recent CD is "All Over Creation," a collection of duets with country singers including Tommy Womack, who will open tonight's show and join Mr. Ringenberg onstage.
"Performance is my strongest point as a musician. Most people would say that I'm much better live than on CD, and I would agree with that," Mr. Ringenberg says.
The nation's capital, he says, is by far one of his favorite venues in the world. "I've always felt like Washington, D.C., was a great place to play. It was always a great place for the Scorchers in the early days."

Jason Ringenberg with Tommy Womack
Iota Club and Cafe, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
8:30 tonight
703/522-8340 for tickets and information

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