City’s Illinois ‘cousin’

Jason Ringenberg
Jason Ringenberg

THE Sheffield that Jason Ringenberg grew up in has the Rock Island Line running straight through it, acre upon acre of agricultural land and barely 1,000 residents.

In fact, according to Google, Ringenberg’s Sheffield is 3,942 miles away in Illinois, America. It has barely 1,000 residents and its landscape is not one of seven hills, but of flat, hugely fertile land and colossal amounts of corn.  

And, like Sheffield, South Yorkshire, Sheffield Illinois grew out of 19th century expansion.

Like many Mid-Western towns, the hamlet emerged with the Rock Island Line, which runs straight through Ringenberg’s parents’ hog farm.

The rail line was the life-force of Sheffield, Illinois. It was from these now deserted tracks that the town took its name, from Joseph Sheffield, who constructed the railroad.

It was also here, walking along the huge sleepers, where Ringenberg learnt to play harmonica.

“There’s a sign outside of Sheffield that says ‘Welcome to Sheffield’, Illinois, that is! The Sheffield I’m from is very different to this Sheffield.

“It’s a small town, there are lots of churches and my family have been there for generations, so I literally know everybody. My dad was a farmer and if he’d see another farmer driving down the street he’d stop and chat in the middle of the road. That’s how it is there.”

“I love coming to Sheffield, though I always crack a few jokes about Sheffield with the crowd and I have some good friends here.”

It’s not just through the banter in which Sheffield appears in Ringenberg’s set. Musically, the small village comes through his songs too.

Ringenberg is an alt-country musician with an organic, rootsy sound. His Emmy Award-winning music is jam-packed with layer upon layer of lap steel guitar, fiddle, guitar and hugely evocative lyrics.

The singer-songwriter was the brains behind Jason and the Scorchers, his critically-acclaimed alter ego act Farmer Jason, and has worked with country artists including Steve Earle and Lambchop.

His music is marked by character-based narratives. He said: “There are a lot of characters in Sheffield and I’m a romantic at heart, so I do write about the Sheffield people.”

One such character is his great, great grandfather, who, in the late 19th century would help immigrants – especially Belgian immigrants – get started and set up.

“He didn’t have much himself but the family were originally from Belgium, so they called my great great grandfather the King of the Belgians and his funeral was one of the biggest in Sheffield.”

The same grit and steeliness that enabled 19th-century immigrants start from scratch in Sheffield is still prevalent in its people today, according to Ringenberger.

“There is a grit and steeliness to people there. The farmers have had 40 years of economic decline and they are still hanging in there.”

Ringenberg’s fascination with American history runs through his entire repertoire. Song titles include Bible and a Gun, Ivan Meets GI Joe and Honkey Tonk Maniac From Mars.

“It’s romantic in that sense I guess. I’m really interested in the American Civil War and the revolutionary period that followed – that’s when the nation was really founded and decided where it was going.”

As far as where Ringenberg’s going, however, it’s a lot more simple: straight up the M1 to Sheffield to play a solo set at the Greystones.

“This show’s a retrospective show so I’ll be playing stuff from Jason and the Scorchers as well as my back catalogue. It will be completely spontaneous.”

Jason Ringenberg plays at the Greystones, Greystones Road, on Sunday.