Wednesday, December 14, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Jason Ring grew up picking and singing
and can't imagine a life without music
|More arts talk|
Musician and songwriter Jason Ring has been playing music about as long as he’s been talking and walking.
A resident of Roanoke, the Galax native grew up in a house of musicians and never gave a life without music a second thought. Influenced early on by the Delta Blues, Ring has grown to develop his own style incorporating blues, bluegrass, jazz and more on various instruments. With three albums under his belt and a fourth on the way, he continues to seek new improvisational expressions as a singer and on the guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin and other instruments.
Photo courtesy of Jason Ring
On the eve of his upcoming Blacksburg performance, Ring takes a moment here to talk about the music.
You started off playing young, right? What got you into playing?
Jason Ring: I’ve been playing music since I was four years old. I had a choice I guess, not much of one. My whole family all play something. So when I was four I started on mandolins, since I couldn’t reach around a guitar. When I got up around five I started picking the guitar. That kind of sculpted what I do — they’re all bluegrass, from the Hillsville-Galax area.
So you always had music in the house, and instruments floating around to play with.
JR: We had toys to play with too, but they just didn’t make the same sound.
When you got older, who influenced you along the way?
JR: There were ones that I always wanted what they had — not so much to sound like but to be influenced by them. Actually, I wound up being influenced by them anyway by mistake — Leo Kottke, Doc Watson, people like that. Even when I was a little kid I never dreamt of being some big rock star. I wanted what Doc Watson had, to be able to hit the road, play some music — I’m not asking for millions of dollars, just enough to keep the house up. Leo Kottke especially … really that style of music has influenced me a lot. But the main thing that influences my music is people — sitting in a corner of a restaurant or bar, watching the way people act, the way people are feeling that day — I play around that.
When did you start playing out? When did that road open up?
JR: Oh I guess when I was around 16. My friends pushed me into it. I’ve never been that outgoing. I’ve really been more of a reclusive person. I’d rather just sit around the house and pick. But then I got hooked on it. Not as much the reaction but trying to win people over.
Musicians definitely play different around a crowd of people than they do by themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever played a song out where something new and different didn’t happen to the song.
JR: I’m improv, so that especially is true for me.
So you’ve been taking some time off to record. What’s your normal gigging life like in a given year?
JR: I work a full-time job, but in the summertime I’ll make a decent living at music. I’ll go from Asheville to West Virginia … I try to do it a little different than most people — I don’t try and have one hotspot, I try to make it something I can travel with. That way I have an excuse to go out and see the world, and make my gas money back, at least. I do well with it over the summertime, but in the wintertime I don’t try as hard with it. That’s when I like to try and record, ’cause who wants to get out in this weather? And people aren’t gonna come out in this weather anyway, not much. I’d rather use this time and play places like the Cellar — I love that. There’s a couple little places here in town I play like the Village Grill. But I stay real busy in the summertime, once a week at the very least.
And you play some festivals too.
JR: Yeah, but I try and mix up the festivals. I send a ton of demos to different venues, and whichever one calls me that I haven’t done is the one I like to do.
I’m in it to see something new.
Any specific aspirations right now, or are you trying to just keep doing what you’re doing?
JR: Right now what I’m aiming for is to get a really good CD together. I do all the recording, and my wife does all the labels and all the covers and everything.
What I’m trying to do is piece together something absolutely wonderful and send it to record labels like Rebel Records. And I’ve actually considered starting on production — picking up some of these local musicians around here who don’t play in cover bands, to give them a better chance. I’d like to use the music to raise enough money for that.
To record their albums, but not on your stuff, right? Because you play pretty much everything already on your albums. What instruments do you play in all?
JR: I play brass, strings and percussion — that’s the easiest way to put it. I don’t play violin. But I can sit down and play a piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, bass, upright bass, trumpet, trombone, flute.
There’s not a lot that I don’t play — clarinets and violins I guess you could exclude.
So what’s a typical show like?
JR: Most of the time … the people listening probably know what’s coming before I do. It’s not that it’s written by me, but it’s being written right there … And next place I play I’ll play something different. It goes back to what I was saying. What influences my music more then anything is the atmosphere itself. At a typical show I’ll come in with a banjo, four or five different guitars in different tunings, and I’ll sit down and play. I play pretty hard. I don’t sing a lot.
And I’ll take bluegrass, jazz, ragtime, blues — I’ve loved the Delta Blues since I was five years old … something I’ve always been passionate about. But by the end of a show what I like trying to do, if I can get it out of me, I like taking all those musics and blending them. I like taking the deep bassy runs from the blues and bluegrass, taking the real swift Joe Pass-style chord patterns and playing them on the banjo, or a mandolin or whatever I pick up.
You’ve obviously listened to a lot of players in a lot of styles. I always have been so into writing songs that I kind of didn’t hit the books in some places like I could have.
JR: That’s a good thing.
In a way, yeah, but then art is not created in a vacuum either, so a lot of times you’re being influenced by people and not even realizing it.
JR: I catch myself doing that a lot … My dad is a big Doc Watson and Bill Monroe fan. So we’d sit around the kitchen and play and sing. What would happen is he was used to hearing Doc Watson or Bill Monroe play a song, and we’d play and he’d say, “well, that’s not right,” whether it was or not. It didn’t sound like Doc Watson … I learned a lot of the Doc Watson and Bill Monroe and Joe Pass and Leo Kottke tunes, but as I got older and older I shied away from all that and started doing what I thought the guitar should sound like.
Finding you own voice.
JR: Right. Everybody talks about grumpy old folks being set in their ways. Yeah, we’re all gonna do that. You don’t find very many passive old people. As I started to age my music became my music … When you become passionate about something, when it becomes yours, it’s yours and you don’t want anything else really touching it. So I’ve become my own musician in that way.