Empire Builders

Jason Ringenberg

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Empire Builders Review

by Mark Deming

When George W. Bush was elected, more than one wag on the political left suggested that there was a possible upside to this event -- the Reagan administration inspired plenty of great dissident rock & roll, so perhaps Dubya's reign would do the same. So far, that hasn't quite been the case, but the fourth solo album from former Jason & the Scorchers frontman Jason Ringenberg, Empire Builders, is just the sort of record some folks might have hoped for under these circumstances. While not explicitly addressing Bush's failings, Empire Builders is an album borne of deep and sincere concern for the soul of the United States in the wake of the war in Iraq and the so-called "war on terror." As Ringenberg says in his liner notes, "I reckon there are two types of empire builders: those who build empires of material wealth and power, and those who build empires of heart, spirit and dignity." While Ringenberg puzzles over America's race for the former goal in the songs "American Question" and "New-Fashioned Imperialist," most of the songs on this disc concern people who have struggled to follow the latter path, from the African-American fighter pilot in "Tuskegee Pride" and the Native-American peacemaker in "Chief Joseph's Last Dream" to an unsung guitar hero in "Link Wray" (the latter featuring some appropriate guitar riffs from Eddie Angel of los Straightjackets). While Jason hasn't forgotten how to sing about matters of the heart and soul, as evidenced by his beautiful readings of "She Hung the Moon (Until It Died)" and Jim Roll's lovely "Eddie Rode the Orphan Train," at its core Empire Builders is an album in the grand tradition of Green on Red's Gas Food Lodging and Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, a musical state-of-the-union address brought by a renegade patriot who refuses to confuse love of country with blind acceptance of its leadership. It's a powerful and deeply moving statement that boasts plenty of fine music to boot.

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