By Eric Hisaw
(May/June 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 3)
I was a 14-year-old fledgling guitar player that night in 1987 when I piled into a Nissan Sentra with my junior high school band mates and went to the rock concert at New Mexico State University’s basketball stadium. Spring was in the air and I was excited and ready for action. A band I knew about and was dying to see was headlining the show. The opener was making a name for himself in guitar magazines and equipment advertisements. Inside the hall I saw an older cousin of mine who was already ensconced in the punk-rock lifestyle and abandoned my music nerd friends for his reckless crew.
Opener Eric Johnson took the stage coaxing progressive pyrotechnics from his Fender Strat, his arsenal of effects and amplifiers effectively boring my rock ’n’ roll heart to tears. I was elated when Jason and Scorchers came out, though, because I’d seen their video on MTV in the mornings a couple of times before school, and had a feeling that they’d be a lot more up my alley. But I really had no clue how hard they’d hit me right from the very beginning, taking all of my favorite styles of music and blending them into one thunderous roar. Standing on Warner Hodges’ side of the stage, I watched in amazement as the stocky, black-leather clad guitarist tossed out one stunning solo after another, spinning around like a wild banshee. Drummer Perry Baggs and bass man Jeff Johnson locked into an intense groove while Jason (Ringenberg) himself seemed to float above the music, bouncing around the stage with what seemed like a limitless supply of energy whooping out the heartfelt lyrics with a searing passion — all while looking like a guy who just stepped off the farm. Trapped in the small but energized crowd in the front of the stage for the whole show, I was soaked in sweat and still reeling from that whirlwind of musical magic by the time I reunited with my guitar buddies afterwards.
“That was awesome!” we all agreed almost at once. A second later, I said, “But Eric Johnson sucked” — right as they all announced, “But Jason and the Scorchers sucked.” We sat in uncomfortable silence for a minute before they proceeded to talk excitedly about effects pedals and scales and arpeggios, and I just looked out the window dreaming about rock ’n’ roll. About a week later, all for the better, I was kicked out of the band.
To understand the impact and importance of Jason and the Scorchers, it helps to look back. In the ‘50s, Nashville, Tenn., had harnessed the hellfire and brimstone of hillbilly music and successfully turned it into a product worth selling. Backwoods bumpkins like Hank Williams, when partnered with smart businessmen like Fred Rose, turned the world onto the primal sounds of the honkytonk. But 10 years later, Chet Atkins refined and sanitized it into a string-and-choir-laden easy listen that was barely recognizable as country music yet bore the title of the “Nashville Sound.” Super talented singers and songwriters surrendered to the factory, turning out cookie-cutter albums on which song selection was determined by publishing rights and instrumentation determined by the musicians union. In the early ‘70s, Willie and Waylon shook the dust off the old creative spirit, but by 1980, when stardom, movies and cocaine had ravaged that Outlaw fire, they too seemed content to ride the factory wave in order to keep their endless party rolling. The time was right for revolution. Just as bands like X and the Gun Club were creating a ruckus on the West Coast in response to the soulless soft-rock grind of Top 40 radio, country music would see its own rebellion. And the brightest light to emerge from that scene, a band so far removed from the so-called Nashville Sound, with roots deep in traditional country and folk and an unrivaled punk-rock energy, could only emerge from the belly of the beast.
“It’s a 12-bar in A,” the lanky singer called out to the latest crew he’d assembled to pursue his vision. Jason Ringenberg, raised on an Illinois hog farm that bordered the Rock Island Line, had shown up in Nashville from Carbondale, Ill., where he’d been in a couple of rockabilly-tinged bands, the Catalinas and Shakespeare’s Riot. Once in Music City he put together an ad hoc group and managed to get a couple of gigs — good ones, opening for Carl Perkins and a new band from Georgia called R.E.M. Punk rock bass player Jeff Johnson had seen the R.E.M. show and was sufficiently interested. Warner Hodges had seen the Carl Perkins gig and, though the guitar player was suspicious of this cat who “looked like a character out of a Huck Finn movie,” he, too, was impressed enough to show up for a rehearsal. Johnson had brought in drummer Perry Baggs, a small but fierce pounder who was looking for the right opportunity to lay down some Keith Moon-inspired mayhem.
It was the first time all of the musicians had played together, but once Ringenberg started the rehearsal’s first song, they tore into it as one, with Baggs digging into a 4/4 beat, Johnson chugging eighth notes, and Hodges doing “this crazy punk-rock boogie.” Ringenberg knew he’d found the perfect combination of people that could make something happen. “That must be my gal/yours don’t look like that!” he shouted, and it was on. The year was 1981, and Jason and the Nashville Scorchers were ablaze.
Although forever under the massive shadow of Music Row and the Grand Ol’ Opry, Nashville is also very much a college town, which made it ripe and ready for a hungry young band with a punk-inspired, do-it-yourself sense of promotion. Eight by eleven hand-drawn flyers cluttered billboards announcing gigs at rock clubs and house parties, and it wasn’t long before the band created a major stir in the Nashville nightlife.
The Scorchers made their fist mark on the national scene in 1982 with the release an EP titled Fervor. The band brought the experience of regional gigs and a low-fi, self-produced local release to the hallowed ground of Sun Studios, where they cut tracks with producer Jim Dickinson. Unfortunately, Sun was in a state of disrepair and the sessions yielded far less than the band’s potential. Returning to Nashville, they fixed up what they had at Castle Studios and released the record on manager Jack Emerson’s fledgling Praxis label. It was met with enough interest to build a touring base and attract the attention of EMI Records, which at the time was banking on the back-to-roots movement with bands like the Stray Cats. While on the road the band signed a deal after a club gig at the Diamond J bar in Las Cruces, N.M. EMI re-released the Fervor EP, remixed and with the addition of a fabulous — and widely acclaimed — cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” In fact, when George Harrison played his own cover of the song at Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert, he seemed to lean heavily on the Scorchers’ arrangement, even borrowing a few of Hodges’ guitar phrases.
At first, many people saw the band as a honkytonk singer from the sticks meeting up with a hard-rocking punk band from the streets, with Ringenberg seeming a Hank Williams character to Hodges’ Johnny Thunders. Maybe that band existed somewhere, but the Scorchers’ dynamic was much more complex. A self-described history nerd, Ringenberg wrote topical songs that updated the Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger tradition. He plugged a Buddy Holly/Ricky Nelson early rock ’n’ roll rhythmic drive into his vocals and at times an Iggy Pop-worthy reckless abandon into his stage presence. And while Hodges from the beginning possessed the ability to drive a song into a punk-rock frenzy with the percussive attack drawn from his experience as a drummer, he also showed the musical sensitivity to color Ringenberg’s lyrics with memorable fills and phrases. Most importantly, Hodges brought a deep knowledge of country music to the band from years of playing with his parents, Blanche and Ed, who had come to Nashville to pursue careers in music.
“When I was 13, I just thought everyone played in their parents’ country band,” says the guitarist, who credits the “get good or get out” mentality of working club gigs for his considerable chops. In a mostly clueless, four-part feature on the burgeoning “New Wave” scene, a local Nashville television news station covered the young Scorchers, following Hodges home to see how his country musician parents felt about his band. Available to view on YouTube, it’s actually a very touching and insightful look into the beginnings of the band. Watching the notoriously loud and hard rocking guitarist pick country standards with his very talented parents reveals a side to the group that was easily overlooked at first glance.
Following the success of Fervor (Hodges notes that both versions of the disc were recognized by the New York Times as “EP of the Year”), the Scorchers returned to the studio with Memphis producer Terry Manning to record Lost and Found. Sonically much richer and powerful than its predecessor, Lost and Found features among several Ringenberg classics the songwriting prowess of drummer Baggs, who delivered the album’s most identifiable track, “White Lies.” The band continued its penchant for powerful cover versions with San Antonian Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway” and the Eddy Arnold standard “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” positioning themselves as teachers for a generation of fans new to the sounds and soul of country music. And while the country music establishment had so far thumbed its nose at the band’s efforts, Lost and Found was graced with contributions from top level country players like fiddler Kenny Lovelace (of Jerry Lee Lewis’ band) and current Austinite Earl Poole Ball on piano, a very substantial endorsement.
As happened with so many rocking roots bands of the ’80s signed to big labels, the Scorchers were soon matched up with a big-time rock producer tasked with finding a way to better commercialize their sound. Tom Werman, a veteran of hit albums by Cheap Trick and Blue Oyster Cult, oversaw the recording of 1986’s Still Standing. While the band’s powerful songwriting and gutsy playing remained very much on display, the glossier sound and L.A.-styled cover photo left some fans unsettled. Onstage, the Scorchers were still very much true to form, and continued to make lifelong devotees in every town they played (just as they did with me that first time I saw them in ’87). Despite getting a boost from the single, “Golden Ball and Chain,” though, Still Standing never really achieved the wider commercial success EMI had hoped for, leading to the Scorchers’ next album being released by their new label, A&M.
Produced in Nashville by Muscle Shoals keyboardist Barry Beckett, 1989’s Thunder and Fire — which featured new bassist Ken Fox in place of Johnson and an additional member, multi-instrumentalist Andy York — oddly embraced the band’s hard-rock/bordering-on-metal side more than any other album in the Scorchers’ catalog. It was still a strong outing, though, with highlights including the driving single “Now That You’re Mine,” the Steve Earle co-write “Bible and a Gun,” and the Phil Ochs cover, “My Kingdom for a Car.” But the ensuing tour, which included dates supporting Bob Dylan, looked to be the band’s last. A decade of hard gigging and dealing with major-label politics had taken a heavy toll, and by 1990 the Scorchers called it quits. Hodges wound up in L.A., working on film crews and getting sober before working his way back home. Ringenberg signed to Liberty Records as a solo artist and tried an album in a more straight country vein, One Foot in the Honkytonks. Though not a bad effort by any means, it was a non-starter commercially. In the overblown era of Garth and Billy Ray, Ringenberg’s updated take on hard country and early rock ’n’ roll didn’t stand a chance on radio and the album sank without much of a trace.
Fortunately the band wouldn’t lie dormant for long. Encouraged by EMI’s issue of a Scorchers compilation on CD, Johnson, who’d left the band prior to Thunder and Fire, persuaded the others they had unfinished business on the rock ’n’ roll highway. Hodges, who hadn’t touched his guitars for a year, was the final holdout but finally signed on, not wanting to let his friends down. The Scorchers entered the studio for 1995’s A Blazing Grace in a completely different place than where they had left off. The ’90s “alt-country” movement was in full flower, with bands like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and the Old 97’s all mixing rootsy country and folk with hip rock sounds to build a dedicated and growing fan base independent of major record companies and big-name producers. Producing themselves for the first time, the band signed with indie label Mammoth and began playing for an audience informed with an entirely different frame of reference than before. Among the album’s highlights was the Scorchers’ first recording of John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” a longtime live favorite that started as a joke and wound up a powerful rendition of a genuinely great song. After that solid comeback effort, the follow up, Clear Impetuous Morning, was even better, with stronger material and fantastic production.
At this time Ringenberg began a fruitful songwriting partnership with Tommy Womack. Womack had been in a Kentucky-based band called Government Cheese that shared a few early gigs with the Scorchers, but he never made of much an impression on Ringenberg at the time. “I saw him as a pest, really,” Ringenberg recalls with a laugh. “One of the guys that would stand on Warner’s side of the stage, geeking out on the guitar.” But after reading Womack’s book, The Cheese Chronicles, he began to see him as a solid talent with words and a working friendship that continues to this day was born. Songs like “Self Sabotage” and “Going Nowhere” lit up Clear Impetuous Morning, affording Hodges, Johnson, and Baggs the opportunity to play together more solidly as a band than ever.
Once again Johnson, described by Hodges as “a super talented guy who is into something new every three months,” jumped ship and the band soldiered on with Kenny Ames on bass, cutting the double live album Midnight Roads and Stages Seen. Mixing selections from their ’90s albums with classic Scorchers fare like “Help There’s a Fire” and “Harvest Moon,” the band proved to be as vital and potent as ever. The highlight of the album comes when Hodges’ mother and father make a guest appearance on the old Rufus Thomas R&B standard “Walking the Dog.” Blanche Hodges tells a touching story of rocking her baby to sleep to the song, her soft, pretty Southern voice a stark contrast to the patented Scorchers roar that follows. The guest spot highlights that underneath the reckless rock ’n’ roll abandon, Jason and the Scorchers were always about family and respect for tradition as much as rebelling against mediocrity and the societal status quo.
The raw power of the live album seemed to take the Scorchers out on a high note. After Baggs took permanent leave due to his health, the band scaled back to making only rare appearances, leaving Ringenberg room to resume his solo career. Or rather, solo careers. He took on a new identity first as a traveling troubadour, releasing the folk-tinged A Pocket Full of Soul in 2000, followed by All Over Creation in 2002 and Empire Builders — his most lyrically ambitious album to date — in 2004. Meanwhile, 2003 found him unveiling his popular children’s music persona, Farmer Jason, with an album released on his own Courageous Chicken label, A Day at the Farm with Farmer Jason. He’s since made two more kids records, 2006’s Rockin’ in the Forest with Farmer Jason and this year’s Nature Jams.
Hodges has stayed plenty busy in the last decade, too. He contributed to a pair of fine albums by harmonica-blowing country rocker Stacie Collins, 2007’s The Lucky Spot and 2010’s Sometimes You Gotta. Both records were produced by Dan Baird. Baird and Hodges, friends since the days when the Georgia Satellites and the Scorchers played many gigs together in the ’80s, also formed a potent guitar team on 2008’s Dan Baird & Homemade Sin. The album, which also features former Satellites Keith Christopher on bass and Mauro Magellan on drums, is a stunning piece of rock ’n’ roll the way it used to be and is a must for fans of Stones and Faces-style guitar grooves. Hodges’ own solo album from the same year, Centerline, is another keeper, showcasing a gamut of different styles from the straight country of Haggard’s “Branded Man” to the blues shuffle of “She’s Tuff,” made famous by another band the Scorchers used to tour with, the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Hodges and Baird have also been working lately with fellow Nashville punk rock veteran Joe Blanton, of the highly underappreciated Royal Court of China, in a new band called the Bluefields.
Despite all that other activity, Ringenberg and Hodges still work together as much as possible. A Nashville organization called the Producer’s Institute allowed a newly revitalized version of the band, featuring Al Collins on bass and multi-instrumentalist Pontus Snibb on drums, to record a great new Jason and the Scorchers album, Halcyon Times, in 2010. With help from Baird, Womack and Ginger Wildheart, the band and producer Brad Jones cut the album in front of a live audience who paid a “tuition fee” of sorts to be there. The crowd was mostly made up of hardcore fans who were happy to participate and see the band in action making their first all-original album in 14 years. Full of Hodges’ guitar boogie and Ringenberg’s topical lyricism, Halcyon Times is a fine slice of life-affirming country rock right on track with what this gang of renegades should be doing 30 years after the initial spark. This past January, they hit the road playing several cities where the Scorchers had made a sizeable mark in the past, finding audiences who still believe.
In recent times, Jason and the Scor-chers have been recognized as pioneers in the Americana world for their renegade accomplishments. While there are really no bands that sound much like the Scorchers working the scene today, their influence is undeniable. At a time when country music seemed to have drifted so far afield as to seem a lost cause, Ringenberg, Hodges, Johnson and Baggs ignited a blazing trail back to its hillbilly roots.
Ringenberg says he moved to Nashville looking for something rootsy, American, and edgy.
“Boy did I ever find it,” he marvels.