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Jason & The Scorchers



Jason and the Scorchers are one of the original alternative country bands. They formed in Nashville, Tennessee in 1981 when Jason Ringenberg, raised on a hog farm in northern Illinois and fresh out of college, came careening into Nashville looking for a “rock n’ roll wild band” and found the Scorchers, three Nashville upstarts who had punk-rock leanings, stand-up comedian attitudes, great musical chops, and more than their share of vices. Jeff Johnson, Warner Hodges, and Perry Baggs joined Jason in Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, and with manager Jack Emerson pulling the right strings, the band roared into the eighties.

Their sound was described as “TNT From Tennessee,” “country punk,” and “Merle Haggard meets the Ramones.” Jason was nicknamed “Jerry Lee Rotten.” In reality, the band was simply working out on stage what they had in their heads and hearts from their teenage years: roots in country, hearts in rock, minds more or less in the gutter. All the members of the band grew up around country music, but they were interested in rock as well. The way Warner Hodges told it, his father (who was a traveling USO musician) heard Warner’s bands thrashing through Van Halen and Kiss-type songs and suggested that if they played Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash, it would sound great. So perhaps it was one part their own doing, one part Edgar Hodges’, and one part divine inspiration.

Whatever the impetus, from 1982 to 1985 Jason and the Scorchers were one of the best live bands ever. EMI signed them in 1984 and re-released their EP “Fervor.” 1985 brought the powerhouse “Lost and Found,” almost non-stop touring, and a creative high-water mark. The Scorchers were so confident in 1985 that they could go on stage anywhere and slay ‘em. Heck, they had survived 35 hillbillies throwing beer bottles at them in punk clubs in 1982 for playing “Ring of Fire.” Australia and Japan must have seemed a grand adventure, and for a while they took on the world.

Nevertheless, enough money still wasn’t coming in. EMI didn’t realize what they had, so they tried to make the Scorchers into something they weren’t – a radio-friendly act. EMI might have tried just shoving the band down the throat of the mainstream, and make the mainstream adapt with a big promotion budget. Huge companies do this all the time with a new U2 or Michael Jackson album. But EMI didn’t make it happen. There was also the requisite amount of rock n’ roll madness going on in the group, which is highly understandable when you’re 24, drinking, and careening off each other 150 nights a year. The band was revered in Europe, but that didn’t translate into enough record sales. Mainstream America was still five to ten years away from accepting alt-country.

“Still Standing” came out in 1986 and had some great songs, but again, it wasn’t what the Scorchers did best. The band took the stage with a lot of the same energy, but things had become more complicated. There was a heaviness to a lot of the shows: more makeup, more hair, louder guitars, heavier rock. Sometimes, as in 1982, less is more. In 1987, EMI dropped the Scorchers, and Jeff dropped out of the band. A fallow period ensued. In 1989, the band released “Thunder and Fire” with a new bassist and guitarist. This record didn’t sound much like alternative country, which isn’t to say that it didn’t rock. The songs were more metal-influenced, as Warner had a big hand in the production. Then Perry Baggs was diagnosed with diabetes during a tour in 1990. Warner called Jason and said he couldn’t do it any more. As Warner said it later, “we didn’t break up, we fell apart.”

In 1991 and 1992, pretty much the whole band went through divorces. Jason put out a solo album that put a toe in the pool of the Nashville mainstream, but he didn’t dive in, God bless him. On tour, his wild stage persona came out, contrasting with the studied craft and hooks of the songs. Warner moved to Los Angeles and worked in the video business. By 1992, he hadn’t played guitar for a year. Jeff Johnson moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Perry was still in Nashville.

Then Jeff bought a copy of “Essential Volume One,” a posthumous Scorchers release that packaged “Fervor” and “Lost and Found” on one CD. He liked it and decided to try to re-unite the band. He called Warner first, who hung up on him after Jeff suggested the reunion. Jeff called six more times that night. Then he started calling Jason, ringing him at four in the morning until Jason agreed to do it. Warner finally agreed, with his rationale being “Okay, I won’t be the bad guy.” Perry came on board, and Jeff had accomplished the seemingly impossible: he had rescued a band that had literally been scattered to the four winds.

The reunion shows of 1993 rocked. Word got out and people flocked to see the band. The reunion tour stretched into the fall. What the hell, the band must have thought – this is more fun than working construction, and we’re not throwing as many things at each other any more. Sober minds also led to more focused shows, and the band started growing again, picking up steam slowly but steadily into 1994. They put together a demo tape of songs they recorded at the Castle, and Jason drove it to Chapel Hill, NC. Jay Faires was the head of Mammoth Records there, and he was a big Scorchers fan from way back when. Jason drove home to Nashville with a record contract in his pocket. Things were looking up.

1995’s “A Blazing Grace” announced to the world that they were back, and in February of that year, they played the Exit/In during the NEA Extravaganza and burned down the house. They toured a lot in 1995 and then had an important meeting that fall. ‘Do we want to try to make a career record?’ they said. Everybody in the band decided they wanted to try. So Jason wrote ten terrific songs that winter, including three with Tommy Womack, and that spring they recorded “Clear Impetuous Morning” at Bakos Amp Works in Atlanta. Released in October 1996, the album stunned people left and right. Jason and the Scorchers were really going for it. They’ve come a long way since they were twirling around with beer cans on their heads.

Jeff left the band in January 1997, retiring from the road to be with his wife and away from the cruel vagaries of the music business. That ended a glorious chapter of the band, but a new and fascinating one started when Kenny Ames came aboard that spring. Ames was young, energetic, funny, and a great musician. He dove into songs from “Thunder and Fire” that the band hadn’t played for eight years and would never have played again if Jeff had stayed. In fact, Kenny’s entrance caused the band to re-examine their whole catalogue, which opened up a whole new set of musical dynamics every night on stage.

It was just as well that they looked at all their songs that year, too, because they recorded a live album that November. Jason’s wife was pregnant, and they raced to get everything done before she gave birth. They made it by a week or two. “Midnight Roads and Stages Seen” came out in May 1998, to widespread good reviews and a general sigh of relief from longtime fans. Whew, we said. At least some of these songs won’t go into the dustbin forever – “Golden Ball and Chain,” “Greetings From Nashville,” many others. So many good out-of-print songs! Now it’s 2001, and we hear from time to time about how EMI is going to re-release “Still Standing,” and that there are other reissue projects waiting in the wings. We remain hopeful, but longtime fans will tell you that they’ll believe it when they see it, and not much before.

The Disney mouse bought Mammoth in 1997, then folded the label in 1999, leaving the Scorchers without a record company again. Kenny Ames joined Dash Rip Rock, although he is still officially in the Scorchers. The band played some festival dates in Tennessee in 2000, the last one in Chattanooga in September. Warner said in the interviews for their Exit/In show on December 31, 1999 that their 20th anniversary year would be something special. Jason released the lovely acoustic record “A Pocketful of Soul” on his Courageous Chicken label in 2000. He toured all over America and Europe to support it, despite having a new girl, Camille Grace, at home.

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