Notes by Mary McCaslin

I met Jim Ringer during the summer of 1972 at the legendary folk music camp/retreat called Sweet's Mill, in the Sierra Mountains above Fresno, California. Jim had grown up around Fresno and was part of the California folk scene. Aside from playing music solo, Jim was a member of the Sweet's Mill String Band, an old time string band made up of musicians from the Fresno area. Jim was 36 years old when we met. He was separated from his wife and children in Fresno and had been living in Berkeley. After years of performing music part time, he was restless to travel and make music his life. All you had to do was see and hear Jim to know that he was the genuine article. As Bruce (Utah) Phillips put it: "Jim was part of the true vine." The Ringers were hill people from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. In the mid-1940s, Jim's parents decided to move the family out of Arkansas to the west. His youngest brother, the last of six children (and the first to be born in a hospital), was born in Oklahoma where the Ringer family lived for a time. Eventually, they traveled on to California and finally settled in the small San Joaquin Valley town of Clovis, a little over ten miles from Fresno. Jim's dad, who had been a farmer, took work in California's booming construction trade which promised a steadier living for the family. However, the children who were old enough had to supplement the family income by working the farm fields around that part of the valley. They picked the crops as they came to harvest. This meant missing weeks of school every year. Jim used to say that the "Okies" who had come to California in the `30s looked down on the "Okies" who came to California in the `40s. He said they didn't want any reminders of their past around, because for the most part they had made their way to respectability. Like Doc Watson's family, Jim's family passed down a tradition of songs and ballads. Most of the old ballads came from his mother's side; his dad knew Jimmie Rodgers songs and played a bluesy style of piano. Also, like Doc, Jim grew up with an appreciation for whatever music he heard and enjoyed. Rock and roll licks and jazz chords were as much a part of Jim's early music as any country song or two-hundred-year-old ballad. He started playing guitar when he was nine or ten. His recall of song lyrics was remarkable. He could remember the words to old ballads, country songs, pop standards and rock and roll songs. When I wanted to learn "Ghost Riders," "Wayward Wind" and "Don't Fence Me In," Jim sat down and wrote out the words. From his early teens until he married, Jim was often in trouble with the law and he ended up serving a prison term in the late 1950s. If doing time made him authentic, it also helped make him wise to the ways of the world and suspicious of any performer who attempted to trade too heavily on prison experience. This is not to say that Jim didn't trade on his life experiences in his own way. He would never brag outright, but he had lots of stories and songs... Jim began performing semi-professionally in the bars and honky-tonks around Fresno in the `60s. He held various jobs over the years, from construction to logging, to support his wife and children. When we met, Jim was just beginning to find his way as a songwriter. The first time I heard him sing "Waitin' For The Hard Times To Go," I was moved by the incredible power of this song's unadorned lyrics. ("Waitin' For The Hard Times To Go" has been recorded by the Nashville Bluegrass Band on their album of the same name on Sugar Hill Records). Over the years, Jim's writing flourished. He painted stunning portraits and his love of words was obvious, but he retained his lean style of writing. There were no "filler" lines in his songs. Jim could come upon an idea for a song and would have it written within a couple of hours. I don't remember him ever struggling over lyrics - he would complete the song, including the melody, in one sitting. When asked to list his favorite musical artists, Jim would often say, "Fats Domino and (jazz singer) Dakota Staton" to the surprise of the questioner. He would then go on to mention Lefty Frizzell and other older country artists. He was also open to the work of younger singer-songwriters. When he heard Jackson Browne's "The Pretender" he admired the song and identified with it. Jim listened to a lot of songs and could quickly sift through what he heard to find the real thing. While Jim put part of himself and his experiences in all of his songs, most were not autobiographical. The exceptions here are "Open Door At Home" and "Good To Get Home," but even these are not exact accounts of any particular event. They chronicle Jim's feelings about being apart from his children and the break up of his marriage. Songs like "Rachel" and "Tramps and Hawkers" (which was recorded by Tom Russell on Rose of the San Joaquin, Hightone) are romantic narratives, with a common setting, the San Joaquin Valley. Jim's lyric writing reached new heights with these two songs. "The Band of Jesse James," "Dusty Desert Wind," "Tulsa," and "Linda's Out There On Her Own" all tell stories that many people assumed were about Jim or told from his perspective. They are peopled with such authentic characters that this is easy to assume - but, like most of the others, they are just stories. The idea for "Still Got That Look" came from an encounter with a young man at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. He was a member of a cult and very determined. He stepped in front of us in an attempt to interest us in the "one true way." We tried passing him and I said that we weren't interested and were just looking for the way out of the building. Still standing in front of us, he said, "There's only one way out..." At this point, Jim sat the guitars and shoulder bag that he was carrying down with a thud and said, "I'll show you the way out!" The young man stepped aside. Whether or not Jim wrote a particular song, it was his when he performed it. He became the cunning suitor in "Saginaw Michigan" and he was certainly the angry young man in Larry Murray's "Hubbardville Store." "Amanda" and "Streamline Cannonball" were years apart in Jim's recording career, but they echo the same sentiment: A life of freedom with goals never quite met. "Any Old Wind" was a country hit in the 1970s and "Rank Stranger" is a bluegrass classic. Jim and I recorded it and "Strawberry Roan" on our duet album "The Bramble and the Rose." Our duet arrangement of "Rank Stranger" is a substantial departure from its more traditional bluegrass arrangement. "Strawberry Roan" was written by Bob Simpson who wrote several of the songs I recorded on my albums over the years. "New Harmony" was written by a songwriter named Craig Johnson. We were playing at the Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan sometime around 1977 or `78. Before the show started we were tuning up and a young man appeared at the door of the warm up room. He complimented our music and went on to say that he wrote songs. He asked if he could sing one of them for us. Usually we would politely decline such requests. But, for some reason, Jim said yes. Midway through Craig's singing of this song, I found myself wondering if I was imagining things or if this was a truly great song. It turned out that Jim was having the same experience. He learned "New Harmony" that night and recorded it on his next album, "Tramps and Hawkers." To me, Jim's rendition of "New Harmony" is the most touching and beautiful of all his recordings. The `Glory Days' of our career together started in late 1976. We began to work steadily and were finally getting the recognition we had been striving for since the early `70s. We married in 1978 and bought a house on the outskirts of San Bernardino that fall. This area of Southern California is on the edge of the desert and partially surrounded by mountains. We both felt at home there. I think this was probably our happiest and most productive time. I never gave much thought to how different we were as performers. When we got together there was no plan to merge our music, though we knew from the start how close our tastes were. How Jim sang the old songs and his country music background were part of what attracted me to him. The first song we worked out was "Rank Stranger." Jim sang it to me while sitting in my kitchen. There was no way I could pass up adding a harmony part. Our voices were different, no doubt about that - but somehow it all blended. Things began to change sometime after 1982, and our fortunes along with Jim's health started to decline. Philo Records was having financial troubles and stopped issuing new recordings. (The label was later bought by Rounder and resurrected.) Work was harder to come by and there seemed to be less interest in folk music in general. In the fall of 1985 we moved from San Bernardino in Southern California to the Eureka/Arcata area in Northern California. This was an effort to start over but it didn't work out. We stopped touring by 1988 with the exception of playing a few gigs in California and the Pacific Northwest. Jim's health worsened and he could not overcome his serious drinking problem. However, Jim did write more songs, among them "If I Don't Miss You," which he wrote for me to sing (and which I later recorded). He also tried writing some short stories. In 1989 we separated and Jim moved back to Fresno. I don't believe he performed publicly again. Jim died on March 17 in 1992 - St. Patrick's Day. He was 56 years old. Mary McCaslin April 1996 The Band of Jesse James (Jim Ringer) He's wild as a half grown child at a grown-up party Like a mustang dang near kicking down the stall He's the kind to pay no mind to what he started He don't care, `cause he'll be somewhere else by fall A wanted man in Reno, he moves on to Cour d'Alene You know that man could've rode with the band of Jesse James He's a funny son-of-a-gun. He keeps you laughing But he's a drummer with a bill of goods to sell He told that girl he loved her, just in passing He was playing. She's still paying `cause she fell He stole that woman's heart just like the outlaws robbed the trains You know that man could've rode with the band of Jesse James He couldn't stay. He slipped away like an outlaw on the run Wild horses couldn't catch him. You couldn't hold him with a gun He'll be caught. He ought to know they'll find him There ain't no place on the face of the earth that man can hide And there won't be no one like me to stand behind him Well, I can't help myself if I act satisfied So hang him, dang him. I don't care. Let the world forget his name You know that man could've rode with the band of Jesse James He'll be caught. He ought to know they'll find him There ain't no place on the face of the earth that man can hide And there won't be no one like me to stand behind him Well, I can't help myself if I act satisfied So hang him, dang him. I don't care. Let the world forget his name You know that man could've rode with the band of Jesse James

Well, there's a fair picture of Jim.

Here's another time about Jim & Mary

Back to Freestone!