By PETER COOPER
September 14, 2008
Jimmy Guterman writes books and articles about rock 'n' roll. He's often called on for expert opinions. On just such a recent occasion, he pondered the inanity of the inquiry at hand.
"Are Jason and the Scorchers the greatest rock band ever to come out of Nashville?" he asked, repeating the question in the same childlike voice he might use to repeat nonsense queries such as "What color is the Jolly Green Giant?" Guterman chuckled, paused and replied, "Oh, of course."
Up to now, the prize for being Nashville's greatest rock band was a gift set that included day jobs and dissolution, quiet pride and considerable heartache and breathless reviews that cannot be redeemed for fame or fortune. Musicians know, and hard-core music fans know, and much of the record-buying nation yawns in collective disinterest.
But on Thursday night at the Ryman Auditorium, the Americana Music Association will bestow a lifetime achievement award on these Scorchers, and the band's most celebrated lineup — singer-songwriter Jason Ringenberg, guitarist Warner Hodges, drummer Perry Baggs and bass man Jeff Johnson — will gather onstage for the first time in 11 years.
Music historian and Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis will speak of the band as an electrifying, innovative force that fused punk rock energy and country roots in a manner never before attempted. Ringenberg will bounce around like, as Guterman once wrote, "Ed Norton on methamphetamines." Hodges will twirl around and unleash twang and distortion from his guitar. Johnson will stand solid and play simple and true. Baggs will fight past the diabetes that sends him to dialysis three days a week. Two songs, that's all they'll play.
"It could very well be the last thing we ever do together," said Baggs, whose day gig involves typing in nightclub listings at The Tennessean. Scorchers fans crowded the Exit/In in 2007 for a concert that raised money to defray Baggs' medical costs.
Lead guitarist Warner Hodges, left, Jason Ringenberg, bass guitar player Jeff Johnson, and drummer Perry Baggs, back, of Jason and the Scorchers. The band formed in the early 1980s and will perform together again Thursday, Sept. 18 at the Americana Music Awards at the Ryman Auditorium.
"It's great to get an award, but this goes further," he continued. "After last year's benefit show, for me, I cried on the way home. And I'm sure I'll cry about this, because I love these guys and I'm going to miss them. If I don't have kidneys, I can't tour. Once, I tried to walk away from this and say it doesn't matter, but it matters every day. We're going to play two songs at the Ryman, and I don't care if they take me away in an ambulance."
'It was an explosion'
"I looked at the band in 1992 as a complete failure," Ringenberg said. "At that time, people were saying, 'You guys had a big push, and it didn't happen.' They weren't saying, 'You guys revolutionized and changed music,' which is what some people say now."
Ringenberg was landscaping — mowing yards — in and around 1992. He'd take a job, and sometimes the property owner would recognize him. There would be the "You're Jason Ringenberg? You're mowing my yard?" moment, followed by a mumbled apology and an offer of, perhaps, a drink of water. In the early 1990s, that was the legacy of Jason and the Scorchers: a swing and a miss.
Ringenberg came to Nashville on July 4, 1981, driving south from Illinois with the notion of starting a band that would rev up some standard country songs into something more rock than hillbilly. Hodges and Johnson had already experimented with just such an idea, with Hodges' country-loving father telling him that if he got serious about that, then he'd really have something. Ringenberg was hanging out at the Springwater dive barwhen he met ambitious Vanderbilt student Jack Emerson and told Emerson of an idea to start a supercharged country band with a rock edge.
"Jack said, 'I'll help you do that, and I don't know how to play bass, but I'll play bass,' " Ringenberg remembered. Emerson managed to get Ringenberg gigs playing in front of buzzed-about alternative band REM and the legendary rocker Carl Perkins. Though the initial band didn't click, Ringenberg was a dynamo onstage, dancing as if he was somehow being pleasurably electrocuted. He had a 200-foot microphone cable, so "onstage" was often offstage, and he'd climb towers or venture into the audience while singing.
Johnson said Ringenberg's intensity was no less in evidence when he was singing in private settings.
"When I first met Jason, I could tell there was a magic there," Johnson said. "Jack Emerson brought him by, and I can remember the first time we jammed. He had a white shirt and a bolo tie. And he was electric, singing and just bouncing off the walls."
Johnson called his longtime friend Hodges and told him to go out and hear the thin, wild vocalist.
"Jeff told me, 'Dude, you've got to see this guy,' " Hodges said. "I did, and Jeff was right. Jeff always knew everything before the rest of us did."
In Hodges' childhood home, his music-making parents played traditional country in the living room, while the son often retreated to the bedroom to listen to AC/DC records. Bass player Johnson was into punk rock. They spoke with Ringenberg and decided to get together and play, and they quickly drove away the fellow who was playing drums. Hodges said he knew a guy who might be able to drum, and so they auditioned 20-year-old Baggs, who showed up at Ringenberg's West Nashville home with a sad little drum kit and two sticks.
"The four of us got together, and started with Carl Perkins' 'Gone, Gone, Gone' and it was an explosion of conflicting chemical components," Ringenberg said. "Right from the first verse, it was there."
Baggs quickly broke a drumstick, and he finished the audition with a tree branch he found in Ringenberg's yard. Weeks later, they recorded a four-song record called Reckless Country Soul, and then they played a New Year's Eve show in Murfreesboro at a club called K.O. Jams. The music was raw and furious, as "Jason and the Nashville Scorchers" whipped Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" until it bled. Patrons began hurling chairs and tables into walls, and the dance floor was littered with wood chunks. People threw beer mugs through windows. Rock 'n' roll, hoochie coo.
As 1982 began, the Scorchers sped as Nashville slumbered. Staid pop-country ruled Music Row, and the rock scene was less than notable. Promising talents went unfulfilled, and a few should-be stars (Dave Olney and Tim Krekel among them) failed to gain public mandate. The Scorchers, though, filled rooms and fueled talk, while Emerson greased the business wheels.
"I saw them first in 1982 in Atlanta," said DeCurtis, who was then a freelance writer. "Rock in the early '80s was very British-oriented, and REM and the Scorchers led this American counter-revolution. There was a neo-traditional aspect to the Scorchers, going back to the country sources that are the American grain. Putting that forward in the context of punk rock and upheaval and rebellion gave it a depth. And then seeing them live, there was a feeling that the whole stage was going to levitate."
Bass player Jeff Johnson, left, Jason Ringenberg, drummer Perry Baggs, and lead guitarist Warner Hodges.
In 1983, the six-song Fervor came out on Praxis Records, an indie label begun by Jack Emerson and Andy McLenon. Then there was a genuine major-label bidding war, and a contract with EMI, and the reissue of Fervor with the addition of new track "Absolutely Sweet Marie." The video for that song, a hyper-drive cover of Bob Dylan's original, aired repeatedly on MTV and featured plenty of Nashville scenery. Thousands of viewers saw Music City in a new light.
"Punk had turned into new wave, which had turned into synth pop," Guterman said. "Country was going through a time when Reba McEntire was considered a singer with edge. The Scorchers were a great punk band and a great rock band and a great country band, often in the same song. They invented what we're now calling 'Americana.' "
A hit, except on radio
The band's masterwork, Lost & Found, was released in 1985, to magnificent reviews. In The New York Times, the Scorchers were "one of the great rock bands of the 1980s," while the Los Angeles Times' Steve Hockman wrote, "The Nashville-based quartet doesn't just blend elements of rock 'n' roll and country, it rams them together with as much force as can be mustered." Ringenberg and Baggs also received notice for their songwriting, as the Scorchers' originals were as sharp as the cover songs they chose.
Trouble was, the band was connecting everywhere but at rock radio.
"It seemed like the crowds loved us, and the record company loved us and radio treated us like we had the flu," Baggs said. "You put a band like the Scorchers on the radio, and you're taking a chance. And they don't like to take chances."
The Scorchers and EMI expected 1986's Still Standing to be the commercial breakthrough. And … it wasn't. Miles and disagreements and rock 'n' roll habits had torn and frayed the Scorchers, and the burgeoning "hair metal" rock scene meant that the commercial marketplace was less friendly to roots-oriented music.
"A lot of stupid things were going on in the band, which were our fault," Hodges said. "And the harder we tried to be commercial, the less like ourselves we got."
EMI dropped the Scorchers, and Johnson exited. The group took on bass player Ken Fox and second guitarist Andy York and made Thunder and Fire for A&M Records, and then toured relentlessly. While the Scorchers opened a string of dates for Bob Dylan, Baggs was losing weight and energy. He wound up in a hospital, and discovered that he had diabetes. Wounded, reeling and exhausted, the band then found it had been dropped by A&M.
"Warner called me at my little farm in Kingston Springs and said, 'I can't do this anymore,' " Ringenberg said. "And the band broke up, for real. I didn't have any belief in going on. Everything was wrong."
Wanting to move toward country music, Ringenberg made a commercially forgettable solo album for Capitol Nashville. He lost the Capitol deal and got divorced, all in the same week. And he went to work, mowing yards.
In 1992, Guterman put together a Scorchers compilation for EMI called Are You Ready For The Country, collecting previously recorded tracks from a now-disbanded group and thereby bringing Fervor and Lost & Found into the compact disc era. Johnson, who had been out of touch with his former bandmates, purchased a copy of the disc, liked it and began calling Ringenberg and Hodges about getting back together. He'd tell Ringenberg that Hodges wanted to do it, which wasn't true. And he'd tell Hodges that Ringenberg wanted to do it, which wasn't true. Until, finally, it became true.
Lead guitarist Warner Hodges, left, drummer Perry Baggs and Jason Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers play to a full house at the Exit/In on as part of the Extravaganza '95.
The original Scorchers regrouped, and in 1995, Mammoth Records put out A Blazing Grace. Clear Impetuous Morning came the following year, and finally there was a live album called Midnight Roads & Stages Seen, recorded at Exit/In. By Midnight Roads, Johnson was gone again, replaced by Kenny Ames. In the new century there have been sporadic, often brilliant live shows, including last year's "Perry Fest." The Scorchers may well make another album, though no one dreams anymore of a radio takeover.
Why this band matters
What, then, is the big deal about a band that never had a gold record or a Top 20 hit?
Thursday's career achievement award isn't about sales figures, it's about energy, inspiration and influence. The Scorchers' American collision of punk, rock and country battered some doors, and if the band emerged with broken collarbones from all that banging, groups such as the Georgia Satellites, the Black Crowes, Wilco and Son Volt were free to walk right through. The band opened minds and ears in Nashville as well, as evidenced by a display at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where Ringenberg's red shirt, the one he wore for the Fervor cover shoot, hangs behind glass.
"Rock 'n' roll ain't nothing but blues and country, but when we started, if you came at it from a country perspective, they looked at you like you were from Mars," Hodges said. "Maybe we changed that."
"They delivered on the promise of what country-rock started out to be in the late 1960s," DeCurtis said. "They modernized it, and they're more important for what has come after. The quality of the work is impeccable, and the impulse has been a lasting one: that desire to take a vital element of the country tradition and connect it with rock. That still gets people excited."
Peter Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or
If you go
What: Americana Music Association Honors & Awards featuring John Hiatt, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, Joan Baez, Jason and the Scorchers, and more.
Where: Ryman Auditorium
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Contact: Ticketmaster at 255-9600 or www.ticketmaster.com, www.ryman.com
The festival and conference
The ninth annual Americana Music Festival & Conference is expected to gather more than 1,000 performers and industry professionals in Music City from Wednesday through Saturday. Events take place at the Nashville Convention Center and other venues throughout Nashville, with up to 60 showcases and performances.
Jason and the Scorchers in the 1980s press:
“Wildly exciting. This is rock ’n’ roll, the real stuff.”
— The New York Times
“Their roots are country, their raw sound is rock ’n’ roll and their songs seem like a natural synthesis of the best of both.”
— Chicago Sun-Times
“Better to forget about labels and simply call (Lost & Found) a great record.
— Musician magazine
“A fabulous band.”
— London Times
“Jason Ringenberg with his nasal whine remains a Dixie-fried Joey Ramone, and the band’s guitars bash and twang like a demolition derby on tracks.”
— Entertainment Weekly
“A Scorchers show is not easy to describe. But it is certainly — on the right night — the nearest you’ll find today to that unspeakable rock ’n’ roll borderline where chaos is transformed magically into art, and art splinters into chaos. In other words, the edge.”
— Record magazine
“The band bashes on: Hodges raising great balls of hellfire on the guitar, bassist Jeff Johnson pumping eighth notes till you can feel the calluses, and drummer Perry Baggs banging away with muscular, unrestrained zeal.” — Rolling Stone