STILL RECKLESS Jason & The Scorchers

 

 

Nashville‘s worst nightmare returns after a 14-year
break. They can still kick the ass of anybody on Music Row (and beyond).

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

It was a tough crowd, even for the Scorchers. The annual
meeting of EMI America
sales, marketing, and promotional personnel was being held at The Castle in Franklin,
Tennessee, a Nashville
suburb. A stage was set up behind the building, a literal fortress that was
built sometime around 1929 as a hide-out for Al Capone associate John Welch.
Three of EMI’s hottest up-and-coming bands – Walk The West, True Believers, and
Jason & the Scorchers – were set to perform for the label’s executives.

 

The Castle had been used for bootlegging and gambling long
before it became a recording studio, but even the ghosts of Capone and the Chicago
crew couldn’t rouse interest for the three bands’ performances among the meeting’s
attendees. The label’s top muckety-mucks were too busy schmoozing with the
superstar diva they had sequestered in the upper turrets of the studio to care
about the bands on the ground. By the time that the Scorchers hit the stage,
both Walk The West and Austin’s
True Believers had cut their sets short in the face of an indifferent audience.

 

By 1986, the Scorchers were veterans of the Southeast
honky-tonk and club circuit. They were used to rowdy audiences, frequently
performing behind chicken wire on stage as they were pelted by beer bottles and
other debris. But the few listeners assembled on the grass of the gently-sloping
hill behind The Castle were too involved with their personal conversations (and
free booze) to pay attention to one of the most electrifying live bands of the
decade.

 

For the Scorchers, who fed off their audience’s energy, this
lack of interest was as oppressive as the summer humidity in Middle Tennessee.
They stumbled through their first song, receiving more than a few odd looks as
those few who were paying attention were asking “why did we sign these
guys again?” As Jason looked out on the sparse crowd of industry types, he
wished that a few of the band’s “real fans” were around to make some
noise.

 

Although liquor was flowing freely at the EMI meeting, there
was not a single can of beer to be found anywhere in The Castle, or on the 34
acres surrounding the studio. My buddy Kid Kasual and I had to coax and bully a
poor staff member to run down the highway and buy some cheap brew, and when he
returned with a meager single case of beer, the Kid and I stuffed as many cans
as possible into the multiple pockets of our urban-camo BDU pants. We would
soon be joined by another local, rocker Joey Blanton of The Royal Court of
China, who had managed to sneak into the event. Joey grabbed up what remained
of the beer, and the three of us headed back to the stage together.

 

We saw the Scorchers’ first song miss the bullseye by miles,
and we felt that something needed to be done. As the band cranked into its
second number, the Kid and I began rolling our empty beer cans down the hill in
front of the stage where we were sitting. The cans would hit the lip of the
stage and bounced up where guitarist Warner Hodges could kick them back at us.
As we got a little drunker, the three of us started whooping and hollering, the
band clearly beginning to play off our minor league rowdiness.  

 

Jason Ringenberg, the band’s singer and namesake, had a
penchant for climbing things while performing. It was not unusual for Jason to
climb atop the speaker cabinets with microphone in hand at the Exit/In or
Cantrell’s, the band’s normal haunts, while Warner performed his usual guitar
gymnastics. Once, at a show held in the parking lot of Cat’s Records in Nashville,
Jason climbed from the edge of the stage, 30 feet up a billboard, to sing a
song. So when he eyed the tree standing quietly at the corner of the makeshift
stage, he began making his ascent upwards.

 

The higher that Jason made it up the tree, the more the EMI
audience began to pay attention. The label had made a significant investment in
the band’s first album, Lost & Found,
spending tens of thousands of dollars on three accompanying videos for MTV, and
here it was at risk as the band’s singer shimmied up a tree like a monkey on
crack.

 

As the Scorchers’ indelicate fusion of country roots,
punkish energy and guitar-driven, hard rock reached a natural crescendo, Jason
jumped halfway down the length of the tree to hit the stage with a resounding
thud, never missing a single word as he flew through the air. Throwing the last
of our empty beer cans at the stage, the Kid, Joey B and I nodded our heads in
approval. Jason & the Scorchers left the stage knowing that while the
record label might not ever support them, they could never ignore them….

 

Flash forward some twenty-four years, and the Scorchers are
still standing in spite of recording industry hijinx that have threatened to
kill the band more than once. With the release of the independently-produced Halcyon Times, the band’s first studio
album in 14 years, Jason & the Scorchers are proving that they’re every bit
as reckless as the young rebels that released the Reckless Country Soul and Fervor EPs a quarter-century earlier. A lot has changed since 1996, however, so why
come back with a new album now?

 

“Warner pretty much led the charge to do another
record,” says singer Jason Ringenberg. “He’s been pushing for it for
two or three years; I’ve been very resistant to it, to be honest. I just didn’t
think that it was a good idea for a lot of different reasons. He stayed after
it and gradually things started falling into place, and now I’m delighted that
we did it. I really do love the record.”

 

“It probably was my fault,” says guitarist Warner Hodges. “My deal with the
Scorchers…this is now the second time that we’ve come back from the dead, I
guess. In my head, the band was never really done.” The illness of
original Scorchers drummer Perry Baggs, in need of a kidney transplant due to
diabetes, affected the band’s ability to perform live. “Perry got to the
point where he just couldn’t do it,” says Hodges, “but I never
thought that the band was done…we just kind of stopped.”

 

The Scorchers faced several obstacles on the way to making Halcyon Times. “There are so many
mountains to climb, it seemed so impossible when we started looking at it,”
says Jason. “For starters, the band in the post-millennium, the little bit
of work that we did, the band just wasn’t up to snuff. I wouldn’t say that the
musicians were bad, it just wasn’t working. It was a shadow of what we used to
be, and that was the first problem.” So, putting together a new band was
job one….

 

The roots of the new Scorchers were formed in 2008.
Remembers Warner, “A couple of summers ago, we got offered a couple of
nice European festivals. I called up Jason and said ‘I’d really like to do
these things,’ but they were seven or eight days apart. He said ‘put together a
band and we’ll go do them,’ there’ll be a front and a back. We hired Al Collins
to play bass, and we hired this Swedish guy Pontus
[Snibb], who had filled in for us a few times when Perry was too ill to play. We
ended up having the time of our lives! The band was spectacular, every day was
better than the day before, and one thing led to another.”

 

“Luckily, we found guys that made the chemistry
work,” adds Jason. “So that left the question, ‘how do we find
producers, and money, and songs…all the rest of the things. I had a meeting
with our manager at a restaurant in Nashville,
and we decided that there was just no way to do this, we just couldn’t come up
with the money. As we were leaving we ran into producer Steve Fishell.”
Fishell, who runs the Music Producer’s Institute, offered to sponsor the
recording of a new Scorchers album through a groundbreaking program where
people pay to be involved in the production of an album. “We found fans
that paid the tuition to make the recording,” says Jason, which led to the
making of Halcyon Times.

 

“People basically pay to learn how to produce a
record,” says Warner. “Quite honestly, had it not happened, I don’t
know that we’d have recorded a record. It actually afforded us the ability to
go to Oceanway Studios and record. Had that not fallen in our lap…when Deb and
Jason met Steve, they were having lunch trying to figure out a way to tell me
that we wouldn’t be able to do this thing.” With the cash in hand, the
band set about to overcome the second obstacle in making a new album – the lack
of songs.

 

Jason and Warner decided to make the songwriting for the new
album a truly collaborative effort. “We all got together for a couple of
weeks in February [2009],” says Jason, who was joined at Hodges’ house by
former Georgia Satellites frontman Dan Baird, Nashville singer/songwriter Tommy
Womack, British rocker Ginger from the Wildhearts, and new Scorchers bassist Al
Collins. Working day and night for around two weeks, this talented group came
up with a number of songs that were later whittled down to 14 for the album.

 

“The last few years I’ve been writing a lot more,
anyway, when I started doing solo stuff,” says Warner, who released his
solo debut album in 2008. “Part of the problem for Jason in doing a Jason
& the Scorchers record, as busy as he is, is trying to come up with 15 or
20 good songs. I told him ‘let’s get a few people involved, and I’ll help, and
we’ll get a pile of songs together.’ That’s what we did and we took the pressure
off. For about two weeks we wrote at my house, and it was wonderful…we had a
blast!”

 

Although Jason and Warner have both individually and
together collaborated with Baird and Womack on several occasions, the inclusion
of Ginger (David Walls) might come as a surprise to long-time Scorchers fans.
“Ginger was a fan from way back,” says Jason, “and he got into
music after hearing Lost & Found.
He was washing dishes in some restaurant. Over the years I got to know him a
little bit, and the Wildhearts played an opening slot for us once in London
in the ’90s. I didn’t realize how much of a talent that man is until we wrote
the songs with him. He is truly one of the most talented musician, singer, and
songwriter that I know in the business.”

 

Hodges chose to co-produce Halcyon Times with noted pop-rock Nashville
producer Brad Jones (Marshall Crenshaw, Matthew Sweet), and the album was essentially
recorded live in the studio. “One of the things that’s really cool,”
remembers Warner, “is that on 13 of the 14 vocals on the record, Jason was
singing live with us as it went down. That hasn’t happened, literally, since Fervor. There’s an immediacy to the
vocals that doesn’t happen when you don’t do it that way.” Hodges was
equally excited about the band’s new rhythm section. “Pontus Snibb, quite
honestly, brought an exuberance to the project…the drums are just fantastic
on the record, the energy and the passion he brought…he and Al both.”

 

Because of the unique circumstances of the sessions, the
album was recorded in front of a live audience consisting of the fans and
students that paid to watch the album produced. The onlookers helped bring
another level of intensity to the performances. “Me and Warner are live
performers,” says Jason, “so just having somebody watching makes a
difference. This record sort of lent itself to this sort of thing, a big loud
public display of emotion.”

 

“That was kind of a cool thing,” says Warner about
the studio audience. “It was really weird when we first started, but it
was a real natural thing and it made perfect sense to have people watching the
sessions. There was a live performance aspect to the recording that had never
been there before.” In exchange for supporting the production of the
album, the session attendees also receive credit in the CD booklet, and got to
add their voices to the album’s final song, “We’ve Got It Goin’ On.”

 

Halcyon Times was
released independently by the band, which will help promote the album with
tours of Europe and the United States.
Aside from the rocking music inside, the CD packaging – courtesy of the band’s
webmaster, graphic artist Paul Needham – is gorgeous and award-worthy in its
own right, featuring photos from the sessions, song lyrics, and extensive liner
notes by almost everybody involved, all put together in a 24-page booklet
certain to thrill fans and newcomers alike. “Jason really wanted to max
out the artwork,” says Warner. “The hardcore fans love it…in Europe,
a lot of the records there, it’s not far away from being downloads and flash drives…a
lot of bands in Europe are selling download cards and flash drives. Jason
thought that this might be the last time that we had the ability to do
this.”

 

The album is dedicated to Jack Emerson, the band’s original
bassist and long-time manager that tragically passed away in 2003 at the age of
43. “It’s hard to talk about Jack in just a few sentences,” says
Jason, “because without the Jack Emerson relationship, I wouldn’t be
sitting here talking to you. He was a profound influence on me, and a lot of people
would say what I just said.” Aside from his work in trying to put the
Scorchers over the top during the 1980s, Emerson also helped and/or worked with
artists like Webb Wilder, Tim Krekel & the Sluggers, John Hiatt, R.E.M. and
dozens of other Southeastern bands. “Jack was the closest thing that we
had in our community of people to a saint. I mean how he treated people, and
what he stood for as a human being. He walked a difference path, and he led a
lot of us down that path. I think about him every day,” says Jason.

 

“Every [Nashville]
band of any consequences in the ’80s, Jack had his handprint on all of it…Jack
was an amazing man. There would be no Jason & the Scorchers without
Jack,” adds Warner. “What Jack brought was the possibility of loading
up your van and going off to Athens, Georgia
and Lawrence, Kansas
and playing. We did Reckless Country Soul because you couldn’t get a gig at 688 without a record. The possibility of
doing the next thing, Jack always saw a way to make it happen.”

 

Emerson would be proud of what the Scorchers have become,
and Halcyon Times is a pure-at-heart
rock ‘n’ roll album with just enough of the band’s legendary country twang to
pacify the hordes of alt-country fans, and enough bent guitar strings and
broken drum heads to satisfy rock music lovers desperately in need of a fix.
With these songs, Jason & the Scorchers take a giant step forward into the
new century with a contemporary rock album that manages to re-capture the
energy and intensity of their youth without betraying their traditional sound.   

 

“Hopefully, and it seems like we’ve done it,”
concludes Warner, “we touched on the past but really looked forward. That
is what I was hoping to do with the band. As opposed to looking backwards, I
wanted us to step into the future, but not forget our roots.” Still
reckless, and still wild, the Scorchers continue to rock their way into the new
century and beyond….

 

[Photo Credit: Brydget
Carrillo]

 

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