Jason & the Scorchers
Jason & the Scorchers
Jason & the Scorchers are considered a seminal alt-country band. They emerged in the late 1980s, when college radio still had not figured out what to do with these strange new cowpunk bands and country music had not yet been resuscitated by a healthy infusion of rock 'n' roll attitude.
The band was formed by Jason Ringenberg in Nashville in 1981. He reportedly recruited Jack Emerson to play drums, with Warner Hodges on guitar and Jeff Johnson on bass. Emerson later served as the group's manager; he now runs E-Squared Records with Steve Earle. Originally, the group was called Jason & the Nashville Scorchers. The band played the club circuit, which included venues such as Exit/In, and opened for national touring acts stopping in Nashville, including Carl Perkins and R.E.M. By 1983 Emerson left the band.The core of the group thus became Ringenberg, Hodges, Johnson, and Perry Baggs on drums.
When the band formed, the term "cowpunk" hadn't really been coined, much less adopted as a genre, but the word aptly described Jason & the Scorchers' high-octane fusion of rock, rockabilly, and country. In a 1998 article in No Depression, Brian Mansfield characterized the musical landscape of the era when Jason & the Scorchers formed: "Country was in its post-Urban Cowboy decline…. Journey, Styx and Ted Nugent dominated the rock airwaves."
"Imagine introducing into this atmosphere a lanky hick from an Illinois pig farm who wore a goofy faux-leopard cowboy hat and shiny fringed shirts that made him look like Porter Wagoner on mescaline, a guy who whipped his body around as furiously as he did his microphone cord," wrote Mansfield. "Back him with three of the town's most notorious rockers," and that was Jason & the Scorchers.
"The Scorchers came screaming into a town dominated by the likes of Barbara Mandrell and Alabama, playing punk covers of songs such as Hank Williams' 'Lost Highway' and Eddy Arnold's 'I Really Don't Want to Know,'" wrote Mansfield in USA Today. "Back then, it was like the Sex Pistols had sauntered into town wearing leopard-skin cowboy hats…. [Jason & the Scorchers] were the first Nashville rock act of that decade signed to a major label. They almost single-handedly created the city's rock scene, and they had an indirect but undeniable impact on country music as well."
Based on the strength of their EP Restless Country Soul, EMI signed Jason & the Scorchers in 1982. They achieved a measure of success from a cover of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" on their Fervor EP. Their other covers included tunes from Hank Williams and the Rolling Stones. Fervor and their two follow-up recordings earned radio play and attracted the attention of the still-young MTV. "Shop It Around" and "Golden Ball and Chain" were among the minor hits the band had. They became known "as one of the hardest-working and most incendiary live acts on the road," according to Michael Toland, writing in Pop Culture Press. "But major success eluded them."
Theirs was a frustrating conundrum. As explained by John Dougan in All Music Guide, the band was not "able to break through to mass acclaim: rock radio was reluctant to play them because they sounded too country, and country radio thought they were too rock; it's an old story that usually spells doom for the band in question."
"The band is unique partly because of how the tastes and influences of its members diverge as much as they converge," observed Michael McCall, writing in No Depression in 2000. "Singer Jason Ringenberg's determination to write songs of meaning and depth is as integral to the band as guitarist Warner Hodges' interest in flash and stomp and drummer Perry Baggs' desire to keep it simple and savage. If not for Ringenberg's folkie heart, the Scorchers would have been just another wild roots-rock band—albeit one with a one-of-a kind guitarist."
EMI dropped Jason & the Scorchers in 1987. Johnson quit. The band took a three-year break, ultimately hiring Ken Fox during the interim. They tried recording again once A&M Records showed interest in the band by signing them. The result was 1989's Thunder & Fire. In Pop Culture Press, Toland described the album as the band's "creative nadir," further saying that "it was under-promoted and sold poorly, leading to the further diminishing of the band's profile."
As Hodges told Toland, circumstances were soundly stacked against them. "A&M got bought the day Thunder & Fire came out, and the guy that bought it drew a line down the artist roster and dropped every band that didn't meet a certain sales figure. And we were on that list because our record had come out that same day." The band ultimately broke up in 1990. "I'd just had it and I left," Hodges told Toland. "We didn't break up so much as we just … went away." Ringenberg, who was at the time going through the dissolution of his first marriage, made a tepidly received solo recording in 1991.
Reunited in 1993 by Johnson, Jason & the Scorchers subsequently released two critically acclaimed albums: 1995's A Blazing Grace and 1996's Clear Impetuous Morning. Entertainment Weekly, in a review of the latter recording, said the performers "once again prove themselves to be the only legitimate living incarnation of the Rolling Stones." Hodges's playing on the 1995 release was compared by Guitar Player to that of Ron Wood of the Faces era. The band encountered yet another lineup change by 1996, however, when Johnson relocated to Atlanta, having grown weary of the machinations of the music business. Ringenberg recorded another solo project in 2000. At that time, he was living outside Nashville with his second wife, Suzy, and their two daughters. He also has a daughter from his previous marriage.
The country music establishment tipped their collective hats in 2001, inducting Jason & the Scorchers into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The band has influenced and continues to exert a force over other artists in various country-flavored musical genres, including performers as diverse as Deana Carter, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Ray Cyrus, and the Kentucky Headhunters, as well as musicians from BR5-49 and the Mavericks, who would eventually perform with the band as guest artists.
For the Record . . .
Members include Kenny Ames (group member, 1996–), bass; Perry Baggs (born on March 22, 1962, in Nashville, TN), drums; Jack Emerson (group member, 1981-83), drums, manager; Ken Fox , bass; Warner Hodges (born on June 4, 1959, in Nashville, TN), guitar; Jeff Johnson (group member 1981-87, 1993-96), bass; Jason Ringenberg (born on November 22, 1959, in IL), vocals.
Group formed as Jason & the Nashville Scorchers by Jason Ringenberg, in Nashville, TN, 1981; played club circuit; signed by EMI, 1982; Jack Emerson quit as drummer, became manager, 1983; released Fervor EP, 1983; dropped by EMI, 1987; signed by A&M, recorded Thunder & Fire, immediately dropped from label, 1989; disbanded, 1990; reunited, 1993; released A Blazing Grace, 1995; released Clear Impetuous Morning, 1996; released Wildfires + Misfires, 2002.
Awards: Inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame, 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Yep Roc Records, P.O. Box 4821, Chapel Hill, NC 27515-4821, website: http://www.yeproc.com. Website— Jason & the Scorchers Official Website: http://www.jasonandthe scorchers.com.
In 2002, to mark the passing of the band's 20th year in existence, Yep Roc Records packaged Wildfires + Misfires, a compilation of outtakes and live cuts. To support the project, the group played only three dates: one at Nashville's Exit/In, the others in North Carolina, home to both the label and some of their most supportive fans.
"We completely bypassed the Nashville establishment and created our own system," Ringenberg said in retrospect during a 2002 interview with the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "We absolutely knew we were creating a new type of music…. We made some monumental mistakes and there's a world of things I would do differently. But I'm looking for a different type of payoff now." While Jason & the Scorchers had not formally disbanded, Ringenberg did declare in that same interview that there would be no further recordings by the group.
Restless Country Soul (EP), Praxis, 1982; reissued, Mammoth, 1997.
Fervor (EP), Praxis, 1983; reissued, EMI America, 1983.
Lost & Found, EMI America, 1985.
Still Standing, Mammoth, 1986.
Thunder & Fire, A&M, 1989.
A Blazing Grace, Mammoth, 1995.
Both Sides of the Line, EMI, 1996.
Clear Impetuous Morning, Mammoth, 1996.
Both Sides of the Line/Of Fervor & Lost, Capitol, 1996.
Midnight Roads & Stages Seen, Mammoth, 1998.
Rock on Germany, Courageous, 2001.
Wildfires + Misfires, Yep Roc, 2002.
Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Macmillan, 1998.
Entertainment Weekly, October 4, 1996, p. 62.
Guitar Player, March 1995, p. 138.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 13, 2002.
No Depression, May-June 1998, p. 76; September-October 2000, p. 40.
Pop Culture Press, Fall 1998, p. 44.
USA Today, May 8, 1998.
"Jason & the Scorchers," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 21, 2003).
"Jason Ringenberg," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 21, 2003).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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Jason & the Scorchers