Cosmic American Music: Chuck Mead, Jason Ringenberg & Jim Lauderdale’s Excellent Adventure

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“You’ve heard of the three tenors,” Jim Lauderdale said to the audience gathered at the Hamilton in Washington, D.C. “Well this is the Cosmic Honky Tonk Revue.”

There was no resemblance in pitch or look to Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo. Jim Lauderdale was referring to himself and friends Chuck Mead and Jason Ringenberg who landed with Mead’s Grassy Knolls Boys in the nation’s capital as part of their summer mini-tour. The three have all released new albums and promoted them in a loose and fun two sets in which they appeared in various combinations. 

And when Mead put in a plug for his album Close to Home at the merch table, he was democratic about it. “Buy everyone’s record,” he added. “Make it easier for all of us.”

The experience had less of the feel of a new roots supergroup than it did three old friends touring the country and taking time to tell stories on their summer vacation. But if there was such a thing as a traveling roots hall of fame, the three would be well deserving. There stood Mead, the director of the Million Dollar Quartet stage show and BR549 roots band founder. Jason Ringenberg, as leader of Jason and the Scorchers, melded rock and country in the post-punk era into something that was wildly influential. And then there was Jim Lauderdale, the great ambassador of Americana music.

The three bandleaders, with the help of pedal steel guitarist Carco Clave, drummer Marty Lynds, bassist Mark Miller and guitarist Rich Gilbert, turned the Hamilton at times into a honky tonk bar. Lauderdale tipped his hat to Parsons, the spiritual founder of “cosmic American music,” one-time member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons’ presence can still be felt in the town where he met Emmylou Harris and went on to make Grievous Angel. When Lauderdale introduced “The King of Broken Hearts,” he talked of its’ inspiration as a dual tribute to both Parsons and George Jones. It was derived from reading Sid Griffin’s biography of Parsons in which he recalled the singer watching George Jones on television and exclaiming: “That’s the king of Broken Hearts!”

No one was wearing any Nudie suits, the famous  rhinestone-covered suits designed by tailor Nudie Cohn and popularized by Parsons. But each was dressed to the tee with Ringenberg wearing a long flowing  red jacket with leopard skin dots on his lapel and shiny stones on his jeans and alligator boots. 

The show began with Mead  kicking off “Honky Tonk Blues,” setting the stage for the three to trade verses with Mead leading, Lauderdale donning an acoustic guitar following and Ringenberg singing free range and pulling up the rear.

“Are  you in a honky tonk mood?” Lauderdale asked as Mead stepped away. He went into “Honky Tonk Mood,” one of four songs he showcased from his new album From Another World. Lauderdale called out his co-writers Mondo Saenz, Sarah Dugay and Logan Ledger. He recounted how he played in the venue with Smokey Robinson sitting in the audience.

Mead can remember the date he first saw Jason and the Scorchers in Lawrence, Kansas. “There wouldn’t be a BR549 without Jason and the Scorchers,” he acknowledged. For his part Ringenberg followed by saying today’s country artists wouldn’t be here without BR549. For Lauderdale seeing Ringenberg in New York in 1984 was a seminal event.

Ringenberg is back with us after a self-imposed exile that’s lasted most of this century. The singer admitted he’s been seen more this year than in the last fifteen years. The lanky slightly gawky singer gyrated from side to side twirling the long pink chord around his throwback mic like he was a rancher rustling rope. He spun it around his shoulders in a nod to Roger Daltrey of The Who. 

Dancing and grabbing his mic stand swaying from side to side, Ringenberg still is youthful and hasn’t lost a step. “I still rock as hard as ever. It just takes longer to recover.” He led with a song about his favorite New Testament character “John The Baptist.” Ringenberg is a great storyteller and it felt like he could break out into a preacher at any moment. When he dialed up “Lookin’ Back Blues,” he called up friend and co-writer Artie Hill from Baltimore who was wearing an MC5 t-shirt., The two belted out what Ringenberg called Hill’s clever country wordplay: “When I say I ain’t looking back I’m not talking about Luckenbach, Texas,” 

Ringenberg couldn’t find his harmonica and temporarily left the stage with bassist Mark Miller holding his long pink mic chord. Ringenberg came back to ask the rhetorical question if there were any Jason and the Scorchers fans and launched into “Lost Highway,” the bands very first song. 

Mead joined Ringenberg for “Harvest Moon” and then blasted his way through four turbocharged songs, drawing from influences and channeling Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival the Allman Brothers and Chuck Berry as he and guitarist Rich Gilbert dueled throughout the hilarity of the rockabilly romp “Daddy Worked The Poles.”  The first set ended with the singers coming back to sing the words of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin Nowhere” with their parts spelled out on cue sheets taped to the monitors.

Mead returned beginning the second set where he left off with another four song frenzy. After singing “There’s Love Where I Come From,” Mead did an imitation of Tex Ritter when someone yelled out it was hillbilly heaven. When Mead welcomed Lauderdale back to the stage, he seemed somewhat in awe, marveling at Lauderdale’s ability to make a song out of something you’d say. “What a life.”

Lauderdale came back to rock with Mead and Gilbert evoking the soundscape of the Beatles Revolver during “It Blows My Mind.” The band, anchored by bassist Miller and drummer  Linds, provided a bedrock foundation and swing for “We Shouldn’t Be Doing This.” Everyone was smoking when Lauderdale dusted off “Hole In My Head,” the first song he wrote with Buddy Miller almost four decades ago and was savored like an old wine.

Ringenberg, the raconteur, came back to recall how he was on the Sequoia forest when he came up with inspiration to write “God Bless The Ramones.” In recounting writing “Bible and Gun” with Steve Earle in Nashville, he set  the stage with his preface. “My first wife was his fourth wife.” It turns out Ringenberg’s sweet dog Muffin loved everyone but went nuts when Earle appeared. When Ringenberg dialed up the Scorchers’ seminal song “Broken Whiskey Glass,” It was as theatrical as ever with Ringenberg spastically in motion and replaying the words of his tragic broken romance in which he forever immortalized himself in the third person. 

By night’s end Lauderdale lauded the Grassy Knoll boys and lobbied for a promotion. “They should be the Grassy Knoll Men.”

The three singers ended with Dave Dudley’s “Six Days On The Toad” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie” from Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. As they joyously sang the chorus, it seemed less a cover than it was in Ringenberg’s genetic make-up, a song that he’s sung for so long it might as well be considered his own.


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