Saturday, July 17, 2010

Jason & the Scorchers: Drug-Store, Truck-Drivin' Band (1996)

(As published in the Illinois Entertainer ... )

Ask anyone who was there and intermittently sober enough to retain sensory impressions: During the video-mad mid-to-late 1980s, Jason & the Scorchers ruled the country-punk roost. Amid the proliferation of MTV-generated pop-music images--Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Dee Snider, images that put the fantasy cart before the rock 'n' roll horse--Jason Ringenberg and the band he rode in on kicked up a musical dust storm.

When the dust had finally settled, the landscape not only looked different--suddenly, cowboy hats were hip--but it sounded different too. The barbed-wire essence of rock-and-roll that had run from Chuck Berry and the Stones all the way up through the Sex Pistols and the Clash survived yet another onslaught of style over substance, and the world had Jason & the Scorchers, at least in part, to thank.

Substance abuse, however, is no better than style abuse, and, looking back, it shouldn't have come as a great surprise to anyone familiar with the debilitating effects of wild living on rock 'n' rollers that Ringenberg's tour-van mates eventually became to burnt to scorch.

"In the old days," Ringenberg recalls, "those guys were wild, wild rock 'n' rollers. I mean, everything imaginable was happening out here, and that made it really difficult for me. I felt completely alone most of the time."

The reasons Ringenberg, who despite his wild-eyed-honky-tonk-singer persona "never was" a party animal, no longer feels alone are several. First, the original Scorchers--guitarist Warner Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson, and drummer Perry Baggs--have overcome their wild ways and gotten serious about rocking as only men in full possession of their senses can. Second, Ringenberg has spent the last few years reconnecting with the Catholic faith of his youth, even going so far as to title his band's 1995 Mammoth Records debut A Blazing Grace and to include a quote from the 126th Psalm on the cover. Clear Impetuous Morning, their brand new album--and, according to Ringenberg, the "most country-rock 'n' roll record [they've] ever made"--wears its inspiration more subtly, but songs like "Victory Road" and "Kick Me Down" express nothing if not a desire to tap a higher power.

The third reason for Ringenberg's not feeling alone is that, according to him, there are more bands now than there ever were in the '80s who are saying it loud: They're country-punk and proud.

"I feel a kinship with a lot of these younger artists, artists like Son Volt, Wilco, the Bottle Rockets, and Slobberbone. In fact, Slobberbone will come right out and say that the Scorchers were their biggest influence.

"Back in the '80s," Ringenberg reflects, "we got into two crowds, almost three at the tail end of it. The first one was the Rank-&-File-Long- Ryders-Green-on-Red sort of scene. We were part of that for awhile. I guess you could even say we led it. Then the mid-'80s came around, and we were lumped in with people like the Georgia Satellites, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and John Cougar Mellencamp. Then by the late '80s we'd almost become a hard-rock band. I mean, Jeff was actually living in L.A. and hanging out with Guns N' Roses."

Ringenberg laughs about it now. "The guys were wearing makeup and doing drugs. They were almost part of the L.A. rock scene for a while. It was really crazy. By the end of the '80s, I felt like the Lone Ranger. I had nothing in common with my own band let alone the music business. It was a very scary time for me."

It was also apparently a scary time for Hodges, Johnson, and Baggs, since it was during this period that they quit their lowdown ways.

"They're very talented people, very good people at heart," says Ringenberg, "and watching them reform their lives and get themselves together, I've come to respect them."

Longtime fans of the group, however, know that there is something that Jason & the Scorchers have never respected and probably never will, and that is the right of rock and pop songs made famous by other artists to remain "unScorched."

Indeed, it was the Scorchers' wildly revisionist, rip-snortin' run through of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" that first brought them to the attention of the world outside Nashville. Tacked onto their Praxis Records EP, Fervor, when it was re-released in '85 by EMI, it transformed a solid but subtle little record into the sort of attention-getter that some bands try for years to create.

Since then they've developed the "Scorched" cover song into a trademark, reaching new heights of audacity last year when they included a thundering rendition of John Denver's 1970 AM-folk ditty, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" on A Blazing Grace.

On Clear Impetuous Morning, they add the satirical Gram Parsons-Roger McGuinn song "Drugstore Truck Drivin' Man"--which Ringenberg calls an "anti-Nashville-music-business kind of song"--to their list of savaged classics. And as usual, the Scorchers version outrocks the original.

"We have a tradition of doing old, classic covers and putting our own stamp--or stomp--on them," Ringenberg chuckles, "but this time we didn't think we were going to do one, because we had a lot of good originals. Still, we demoed 'Drugstore Truck Drivin' Man,' which we've been playing live for awhile now, and it came out way beyond our expectations. We really hit a groove with it."

Unquestionably, a compilation that would collect all the Scorchers cover songs in one place has been long overdue for some time now, as has the CD re-release of their entire catalogue, a catalogue to which Mammoth almost secured the rights before EMI made it financially disadvantage for the indie label at the last minute.

"It was a bitter disappointment when that happened," Ringenberg admits, "because we came oh so close to getting the entire EMI catalogue. But it's still possible.

"Actually," he muses, "we're due for a live record. We've never done one, and it's getting to be that time. It would have to be really good though, because people have a lot of great memories of Scorchers shows. Our live record would have to smoke."

On the evidence of Clear Impetuous Morning, Ringenberg has nothing to fear. In fact, it's the anti-smoking crusaders who'd better watch out.

(More Ringenberg:

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