by Rev. Keith A. Gordon
The Reverend remembers watching...no, witnessing Jason & the Nashville Scorchers tear apart a local club - Cantrell's, maybe the Exit/In - no matter, 'cause those ol' boys ripped it up like Link Wray and took that building apart brick by (figurative) brick. Nobody, and I mean nobody could take over a stage like Jason, Warner, Jeff, and Perry back in the day, and if you had the cajones and the stamina, they'd keep on rockin' until every last punter had dropped to the floor....
Yup, back during the early '80s in the Music City, rock 'n' roll was a man's (and a few choice women's) game, with bands fiercely rejecting the country music establishment that had hung the albatross of the cornpone Hee Haw image around the necks of we young soul rebels. Giants walked the dark streets and back alleys of Elliston Place and Eighth Avenue and East Nashville those days, outlaws like Raging Fire, the dusters, Shadow 15, Webb Wilder, the Bunnies, and many more who took the stage each night determined not to quit rockin' until the stinking cowtown corpse was permanently buried.
None of the musical giants of that era strode taller or played faster and louder than Jason & the Nashville Scorchers (the "Nashville" part was later dropped at the recommendation of some recordco dunce). They were not only the most popular band in town for a long time, one could make the argument that, for much of the world outside of Middle Tennessee, and they were the only band that mattered.
The Scorchers were quite a spectacle, no matter what stage they conquered: while Jason yelped and danced and spun around like a dervish with pants on fire, Warner Hodges would play Keef to Jason's Mick, tearing otherworldly sounds out of his guitar that had been previously unheard by human ears. Bassist Jeff Johnson was the epitome of cool, holding down the rhythm, while drummer Perry Baggs was a madman on the skins, bashing the cans like Tennessee's own John Bonham while providing angelic harmony vocals behind Jason's farm-bred Illinois twang.
More importantly, at least to us on the street, the drones on Music Row and the Nashville cultural establishment hated the Scorchers with a passion, viewing them as either the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or as the end of everything good and green and holy about the city. Legend has it that famed Nashville deejay Ralph Emery turned his nose up at the Byrds when they played the Grand Ol' Opry in 1967; a couple of decades later, the Scorchers damn near gave the poor man a heart attack. Back on Elliston Place, however, we knew the future of rock 'n' roll when we heard it, and as the band began to expand its circle to the Southeast, and then Europe with one fine record after another, it looked for a moment like our predictions of Scorchers world dominance might come true....
Sadly, Jason & the Scorchers never got the respect that they deserved; their records were under-promoted by the labels, or ignored in the hope that the band might just go away. Tensions grew dire within the band, members came and went, and by the time that grunge and the Seattle scene had wiped the slate clean, the Scorchers had fallen by the wayside. Although a mid-1990s Scorchers reunion would result in a pair of perfectly good studio albums and a live set that came as close as technology would allow to capturing the band's anarchic onstage energy, it seemed as if stardom just wasn't in the cards for Jason & the Scorchers.
Flash forward to 2010...the Kings of Leon are the new cocks on the walk, the first Nashville rockers to afford million-dollar homes, and it all seems so damn wrong. Sure, the local music scene still exists on some level, but every young new band seems to have its eye on the dollars and not the music, which is probably why old '80s warhorses like Royal Court of China, Shadow 15, the Bunnies, et al are drawing club crowds like it's 1985 all over again, 'cause the young 'uns wanna rock, dammit! They want none of this TMZ bullshit and celebrity band status, just rock 'n' roll to feed the soul!
Into this vacuum steps a reunited Jason & the Scorchers with Halcyon Times, the band's first studio album in 14 years. Messrs. Ringenberg and Hodges still captain the ship, new guys Al Collins (bass) and Pontus Snibb (drums) are on board to man the rhythm section, and various musical contributions come from fellow travelers like former Georgia Satellites frontman Dan Baird, Brit-rocker Ginger of the Wildhearts, beloved Nashville icon Tommy Womack, and former Scorchers bandmate Perry Baggs, who provides his lively harmonies to several songs.
Somewhere on his Tennessee farm ol' Jason must be hiding a damn time machine, because Halcyon Times sounds more like 1985 than 2010, the new album re-capturing the joyous abandon of early Scorchers' discs like Reckless Country Soul or Fervor than anything they've done since. Sure, it may not have been recorded in Jack Emerson's living room (R.I.P. Brother Jack), but Halcyon Times, produced by Hodges and Nashville pop-rock wunderkind Brad Jones, offers an energy and immediacy lacking in most modern recordings.
The reasons behind the crackling livewire sound of the album comes from the presence of an audience watching the band record from behind glass, and the unlikely strategy of putting Jason live in the studio, singing along with the band...something seldom done with today's Pro Tools dominated recording techniques. The result is an album that rocks like it was recorded in somebody's living room, but sounds like a well-made studio creation.
The songs on Halcyon Times are among the best the Scorchers have ever delivered. The breakneck rocker "Moonshine Guy" is a paean to a certain kind of individual that, while not restricted to the South, is nevertheless a particularly Dixie-fried sort of character. With a punkish pace and intensity, Jason sings of the guy that "loves the Stones, hates the Doors/thinks the Beatles sing for girls/he's a moonshine guy in a six-pack world," his rapidfire vocals telling of the sort of last-century diehard who still yells "play Freebird" at any show he attends. A Celtic-flavored instrumental interlude in the middle, titled "Releasing Celtic Prisoners," provides just enough relief for the band to charge back in to conclude the song.
Although "Moonshine Guy" could be dismissed by some slackjaw critics as a novelty, it's really just a comic intro to a serious, joyful, and reckless set of songs that show why the Scorchers, 25 years after their debut, retain a fiercely loyal following from Lawrence, Kansas to London, England and points beyond. The collaborative songwriting efforts on Halcyon Times have produced some stellar results. Despite the contemporary production values, the raging "Mona Lee" sounds like vintage Scorchers with Hodges' six-string gymnastics and Jason's country soul vocals accompanied by fluid bass lines and crashing drumbeats.
The folkish "Mother of Greed" features some of Jason's best vocals, the song possessing an ethereal quality as the lyrics recount the passage of time and cash-grab progress. The Hodges/Dan Baird guitarwork here is simply gorgeous, their instruments intertwined in a beautiful melody until Hodges cuts loose with a magnificent solo. The vocal harmonies provide a gauzy, otherworldly quality to the mix. The album-closing "We've Got It Goin' On" is the sort of song that the Scorchers based their rep on, only writ large for the 21st century. With shotgun lyrics delivered at 100mph above chaotic instrumentation that echoes 1960s garage-rock intensity, Jason spits out almost stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are nevertheless intriguing: "does an empire falling ever make a sound?"; "diggin' down in the here and now 'til tomorrow is yesterday"; "blacking out on a rush of pain kind of felt like home to me". I'm not sure what it all means, but it rocks and that's good enough for me!
For all the band's protestations that they wanted to make a record that was forward-looking, the past casts a long shadow across Halcyon Times. The Scorchers, after all, were the great white hopes of cowpunk; the critical darlings with a cult following that were one song away from mainstream mega-stardom. Although Ringenberg and Hodges have certainly come to grips with their near-brush with infamy, somewhere deep inside them it has to chafe just a bit...on many nights, the Scorchers were the best rock 'n' roll band in the land, the Replacements and other pretenders to the throne be damned.
As such, Halcyon Times includes many subtle, and some not-so-so subtle references to days gone by, such as the inclusion of the nearly-subliminal line from "Hot Nights In Georgia" that serves as a kick-off to the second part of "Moonshine Guy." The rockabilly-tinged "Getting' Nowhere Fast" could be the band's theme song, a runaway instrumental freight train with Jason singing "we're getting nowhere fast faster than we've ever been, we're getting nowhere fast put the pedal to the metal again." In many ways, the song is a statement of defiance, and a gleeful one at that.
"Golden Days," from which the album takes its name, is a look backwards that charts the progress of a fictional protagonist through the years, meaningful lyrics matched by another solid vocal performance and a timeless pop-rock soundtrack with an infectious chorus. The darkly humorous "Twang Town Blues" is the story of the Scorchers and every other wild-eyed dreamer that landed in Nashville, or L.A., or New York in search of fame and fortune. Telling the story of several such hopefuls with talking blues vocals resting above a menacing swamp-rock theme, the line "tonight he'll kill a six-pack just to watch it die" shouts out to Johnny Cash and Nashville's checkered musical history with eerie effect.
Co-written by Dan Baird with an eye specifically towards the Scorchers, "Days of Wine and Roses" is the story of Jason and Warner and their often complicated relationship. In many ways the song is the heart of Halcyon Times, Jason singing "like a soldier that doesn't know that it's time to go home, and if there's no one else to hoist the flag, well I'll go it alone" with a world-weariness that only 25 years in the music biz can bring. Warner's guitar tones are mesmerizing, bringing a bright, emotional edge to the lyrics as Jason sings "the days of wine and roses they are long dead and gone, carry on, carry on..." The song positions the Scorchers - and specifically Jason and Warner - as the veterans they are, old soldiers that refuse to go quietly into that good night.
If "Days of Wine and Roses" is the heart of Halcyon Times, then the pop-tinged rocker "Better Than This" serves as the album's soul. With Warner singing in a voice that is as distinctively hard rock in nature as Jason's is earthy country twang, the song delights in the unbridled joy of making music. Above a raucous soundtrack with some red-hot guitarwork, Warner sings "someday you just might find/as you're looking back in time/it gets good but it don't get better than this." No matter the band's trials and tribulations, minor successes and failures, it all fades away once they hit the stage.
Released independently by the band, Halcyon Times is unlikely to set the charts on fire, although it's certainly one of the best rock albums that will be released in 2010. Sensing that it might be the band's last stand - or at least their last physical CD in an increasingly digital world - the Scorchers have put together a beautiful CD package that includes great graphics, and a thick booklet full of lyrics, photos, and liner notes sure to thrill the hardcore faithful.
It's the music that counts, though, and here Jason & the Scorchers and friends have delivered in spades. The album combines the reckless energy and enthusiasm of their youth with the cautious optimism and mature talent of veteran musicians. With Halcyon Times, the band rocks harder and sounds better than they ever have. The Scorchers may be going nowhere fast, but they're having a hell of a time doing so....
Standout Tracks: It's all good, so go get it!