Releasing a record a quarter of a century after your first, and over a decade since your last activity of note, is never going to be risk free. And it could be argued that it’s a particularly parlous undertaking for a band like Jason and the Scorchers (JATS), the original and most successful purveyors of the punk country hybrid that became known as ‘cowpunk’.
Cowpunk, you may imagine, is a young man’s game, and it’s fair to say that neither Jason Ringenberg, who gave the band both a name and a genius with melody and maudlin lyric, nor flame-fingered guitarist Warner Hodges, are young men anymore.
But if you imagined that, Halcyon Days says you’d be wrong, and says it with snarl and wit. The album is a qualified triumph. It nimbly dodges the trapdoor to self-parody, yet remains defiantly a JATS record, kicking up a Nashville storm one minute and settling down on the porch with a whiskey and a twelve-string guitar the next.
The old Scorcher’s energy – and they always had a more than most – is present and correct, on Moonshine Guy, Golden Days, and the epic Mona Lee. In fact, the playing on Halcyon Times – Hodges’ trademark fiery solos included – seems as fresh as a new born hog (a hoglet?) on a Tennessee farm.
And the years he spent as a hard-touring solo artist have done the singer’s storytelling no harm at all. Ringenberg’s was never an insular or parochial worldview, whatever the clichés (repeated here – apologies) about hog farms and porches. On Halcyon Times, his focus sweeps from American foreign policy to the dark heart of the music business.
At times, Ringenberg is like Springsteen is his ability to marry the personal and political, particularly on the angry, desperate ballad Mother of Greed and the mining song Beat On The Mountain. But he’s good in more obviously country territory, too. Mona Lee is a wonderful song about trying to make love last; When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie To Me) a surprisingly catchy tune about love gone bad.
I said Halcyon Times is a qualified triumph, and it is. There are a couple of fillers here and it occasionally slips into easy nostalgia. But it’s an album that can look JATS’s 80s classics, Fervor and Lost and Found square in the eye, and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.