JASON & THE SCORCHERS - Still Smokin’!
by Douglas McPherson
As the cow-punk pioneers return to the UK with a fiery new album, Douglas McPherson revisits their incendiary origins.
Fifteen years on, or maybe more, we’re all still talking about a particularly riotous gig at the Mean Fiddler, when the skinny cowboy-hatted lead singer of Jason & The Scorchers wrapped himself in a confederate flag and hurled himself onto the wedged-solid, pogo-ing, beer-sodden crowd and was bounced around above our heads like a boat on a rough sea before being tossed back onto the stage where he continued singing without missing a beat. I was there. “I was there!” the publicist adds proudly. And, of course, Jason Ringenberg, who was that lead singer, remembers it well. “I think I’ve still got that flag!” Jason laughs, with typical nervous energy. “Looking back at some of the things I did to get attention, I can’t believe I never broke things. I could have died doing some of those things!” So will we see scenes like that when the Scorchers come back to Blighty this month. Quick as a switchblade, Jason promises, “If the spirit’s there.”
The spirit is certainly present and correct on the Scorchers’ new album, Halcyon Times. After a ten year studio layoff, it’s a comeback that does the seeming impossible, being more consistently fine from beginning to end than anything the cow-punk pioneers released in their wild and woolly youth. As Muppet-haired lead guitarist Warner Hodges puts it, “Whaddya think about that that? Not bad for a bunch of old fogeys!” Jason admits, “I didn’t think we had anything like that in us. I certainly didn’t think I had it in me. I have to credit Warner. He really believed, and he stayed after me for years to do this record. I was quite resistant.”
If Jason & The Scorchers is a collision between country and heavy metal, then visual and sonic first impressions would suggest that Warner is the heavy metal guy. In fact, he is probably the most steeped in traditional country. His dad was in the military, but also had a country band that played US forces bases and Warner grew up playing the drums with him. “I was raised on Hank Williams, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard. I know that music inside out.” As a teenager growing up in Nashville, however, Warner discovered his all time favourite band AC/DC. He switched from drums to electric guitar and, in the late 70s, graduated to the emerging punk scene. “Country music in those days was the Vegas country thing,” Warner says darkly. “It was bad.”
With later Scorchers’ drummer Perry Baggs and bassist Jeff Johnson, Warner formed a band called The Electric Boys, with himself as singer. “It was a punk rock thing, but it was melodic. We had songs and vocals, it wasn’t just screaming and yelling. But it was pretty fast loud stuff. “We were toying with some country songs and basically doing bad punk rock versions of them. We were treated like leprosy by the Music Row establishment. But I’ll never forget rehearsing in my parents’ basement one day. My dad looked over at Jeff and said, ’If you boys actually got serious at that, you’ve got something.’ So Jeff always credited my father with what became Jason & The Scorchers. My dad said it was Ok to play country music faster and louder and to Jeff that made it cool.”
Nashville incomer Jason Ringenberg, meanwhile, had already patented the name Jason & The Nashville Scorchers. Having grown up on an Illinois hog farm, Jason says he was bitten by the music bug when he was 18. “At first I was a solo, folky sort of guy. I played in bluegrass bands and folk cover bands. But when I was 20 I got into some electric music. Louder, crazier music. “The common mythology is I came to Nashville to be a country singer, which I didn’t. I wanted to do American roots music just really charged up. Having said that, I think the band probably became a lot louder and heavier than what I had in my mind. It became much more rock’n’roll.”
Wearing a “trashed out outfit - bohemian Opry mixed with punk rock,” Jason formed a band with bassist Jack Emerson who would later become the Scorchers’ manager. “It was basically a cover band. We played things a little loud and fast, but it wasn’t anything like what the Scorchers became. It was just a vehicle to get me into the world.” Displaying early management acumen, Emerson got the band their first gig opening for Carl Perkins, and their second opening for the then unknown but later world famous R.E.M. “Jack carried on doing things like that for the rest of his life,” Jason remembers, fondly. “He just kept pulling rabbits out of the hat.” The gigs were to prove fateful. “I saw the Carl Perkins gig,” Warner recalls, “And Jeff saw the R.E.M. gig. The gig I saw, Jason spent half the set out in the audience playing and singing. He was the same guy you see all these years later and I just got a hoot out of it. Jeff and I were like, wow, we need to jam with this guy!”
“My first meeting with Warner?” Jason lets out a peal of laughter. “Oh my goodness, I’ll never forget it. It was behind this little punk rock club. He says, ‘Jason, hi, I’m Warner Hodges. I know everyone says I’m an asshole, but I’m really OK!” Johnson was first to join Jason‘s band, taking over bass duties from Emerson who’s real talent lay in management. Warner’s arrival created more waves. “The guy we had on drums vehemently hated Warner,” Jason giggles. “He said, ‘If you bring Warner into this band, I quit on the spot!’ I said, ‘Well that’s what we’re thinking about doing.’ And he quit on the spot - using quite a bit of profanity I might add!”
Perry Baggs took over the drums and when the new line-up first rehearsed, the magic was “instantaneous,” says Jason. “We did Carl Perkins’ Gone Gone Gone at the Shotgun Shack on Neighbourly Drive in West Nashville - the sorta hillbilly section of town. They had a little practise room in the back. I said this is key of A, three chord rock’n’roll... Perry was playing really strong 4-beat, Warner was cranked up to 10... and it turned into this psychobilly monster. The first half of the first verse, I knew the band was gonna do something.”
Of the creative spark between Jason and his newfound Scorchers, Warner says, “We were the Nashville bad boys. Jason wasn’t. There were a lot of people who didn’t have a good word to say about Jeff, Perry and myself. We were Nashville’s version of the Sex Pistols. “But we did bring a vitality to Jason’s stuff that just wasn’t there. Jason was like a folkie, you know? But he had a vision of doing this thing that became Jason & The Scorchers. “I think sometimes we were between the lines for him and sometimes we were way outside the lines and he didn’t know what to do with us. But the end results speak for themselves. Records like Reckless Country Soul and Lost & Found still stand up.”
Early gigs caused a stir. “We were like these intrepid pioneers going into the Sioux nation!” Jason grins. “Four of us facing 5000 Sioux warriors and saying, ‘We’re gonna beat you guys!’” “There were college towns where the kids really got the band,” says Warner. “And other places where people would literally want to kill us.” “I’ll never forget Knoxville,” Jason goes on. “Jeff had started off with some local yokel. The dude just took it... but then he went back and got all his friends. “We were outside this club, loading up. They’d closed the door and said, you know, ‘Here’s six dollars, get lost.’ So we were in this alley with nobody around, and all of a sudden there’s like two dozen guys surrounding us! “They said, ’Where’s the guy with the Mohawk, we wanna kill him.’ Jeff’s hiding in the back of the van and me and Warner and Perry were just there. I can’t believe we got through it. They started kicking over our amps, but somehow we talked our way out of it. You know, ’We like the same kind of bands as you...!’”
The cow-punk pioneers won critical acclaim and a cult following, and have since become acknowledged as fathers of alt.country. But despite being hailed by the mid-80s as the ‘next big thing’ they never scored the hit record that would have brought them to a wider audience. “We were square peg, round hole,” says Warner. “Too country for rock music and too rock for country. This was pre-Americana and everybody thought we were making fun of country music, which was not the case. “But I don’t just blame the music business. We were young and we made some stupid mistakes. There was an element of destructiveness within the band that made the music great but also made it hard to be a band sometimes.”
According to Jason, “In 1986 we were really set up to do business in America. American radio, after struggling against it for three years, was finally ready to take the band. We really needed to make a brilliant record with a strong single... and we just came through the door with a really poor record (Still Standing). It had nothing on it that had anything really catchy or any kind of anthemic quality. That was the big mistake, I think. “Beyond that, I don’t think the band was ever destined for superstardom. I don’t think we would ever have reached R.E.M. or U2 standard. But I think we could have done better than we did, if we’d done a great record in 1986.” After a moment’s reflection, Jason decides, “It’s a very strange band.”
Yet, it’s a band the members keep coming back to through numerous splits, reunions, comebacks and outside careers. In recent years, Warner has played with Dan Baird’s Homemade Sin while Jason has carved a surprise career as children’s entertainer Farmer Jason. So what keeps them coming back to the Scorchers?
“Sometimes it’s pure economics - you gotta make a living,” Jason admits. “But I think there’s something really exciting about being a Scorcher, for me and I think for the others as well.” For Warner, “This band is a piece of me. It’s something I helped to create. And when it’s correct, it’s pretty incredible. There’s something special, chemistry-wise, that doesn’t happen anywhere else. My experience playing in Homemade Sin is a completely different deal.”
As Jason stated above, Warner was the driving force behind the Scorchers’ latest comeback. “Jason kinda thought we were done,” says the guitarist. “Perry, our drummer, needs a kidney transplant and he really couldn’t do it anymore. Jeff, our original bass player, didn’t want to do it anymore. We hadn’t so much quit as just kinda stopped doing anything. But in my head it was never over. It was like, OK, we’re on hiatus. We need the right guys - and the right guys fell in our laps last year.”
The new guys are Swedish drummer Pontus Snibb and Stacie Collins’s husband and bassist Al Collins, who have combined to create a rock-solid rhythm section that is the perfect accompaniment to Warner’s big and fiery guitar sound. “I knew Al, because I had depped in the Stacie Collins band, some,” Warner explains, “And Pontius subbed for us years ago when Perry was too ill to do some dates. We never even rehearsed. We met, walked on stage and it was wonderful.
“So, the Scorchers got offered some summer festival dates, I talked to Jason and we agreed to do it. We hired Al and Pontius and we had a blast. It was the first time in a long time when every night was better than the last. The last time that happened, I guess, was back when we first started. “I think before we did those shows it was a question of how do we replace Perry, who was such an integral part of the band, and he just couldn’t physically do it anymore. It didn’t feel right moving forward without him, but he’s kinda given us his blessing now.
“The first show we did in years was actually a benefit for Perry, because the medical insurance situation in the States is not good and Perry was really financially strapped. “Then when Jason saw the shows we did with Al and Pontus, he finally realised there was a way to move forward. So it just became a question of writing the songs and making the record.”
With Dan Baird, Tommy Womack and old Scorcher’s pal Ginger from The Wildhearts chipping in, the writing process went like a dream, says Warner.
“We had two weeks at my house, literally writing 24-hours a day. At one point, we had three Macs going in three different rooms, and people going from room to room, throwing in a line, then going to another room and working on a different song.”
With the resulting songs recorded largely live in the studio, Warner adds, “There was a vibe happening that we had never been able to get on a Scorchers record. We caught magic in a bottle there, in about three days.”
Although their 20-something selves surely could not have envisaged playing their energised brand of cow-punk at 50, Jason feels the band has improved with age.
“I think there’s no question about it. Certainly Warner’s playing and his discipline is so honed now. And I think I’ve become a better singer. As to why, I think some of it is Farmer Jason. My years doing that has made me concentrate so much more on enunciation, because to sing to 4-year-olds you have to be really clear what you’re singing. You have to focus on projecting your charisma through your vocals to keep their attention and I think that’s helped me in my rock’n’roll world.”
So will there be another album coming soon? “I’m always thinking that way,” Warner enthuses, “But you better not tell Jason that!” As for Jason, “I leave that to Warner! I’m just enjoying this record and this tour for what it is. I’m just delighted.”