New CD, 'Wildfires and Misfires,' story of band
Blazing trails with Jason and the Scorchers
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- It was the early 1980s, and Nashville was a sleepy place.
Oh, the Tennessee city was, then as now, the headquarters for country music. But it was a laid-back country, the "urban cowboy" country of Ronnie Milsap and Mickey Gilley. So when Jason and the Scorchers came to town, with their fiery butt-kickin' triple-time covers of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, the locals didn't quite know what to make of them.
But they caught on quickly.
"I kinda wanted to make a supercharged roots-rock band," says lead singer and guitarist Jason Ringenberg in a phone interview from Nashville. "Some people were caught by surprise, but by and large people fell in love immediately. There was nobody else like us."
Nashville has gone through a few transformations since then -- from light pop to hat bands to Garth Brooks to Shania Twain and Faith Hill -- but there still aren't many bands like Jason and the Scorchers.
With their fearless, blazing sound, the group essentially invented what's now called alternative country -- a blend of traditional C&W sounds and rock 'n' roll spirit, expressed in artists such as BR5-49 and the Vidalias. The group's up-and-down 20-year history is gathered on a new CD, "Wildfires and Misfires," a collection of alternate takes and live tracks.
If alt.country is lacking something, it's radio support. If artists don't get played on so-called "Americana"-formatted stations, they often don't get played at all. But that was nothing new to Jason and the Scorchers. Originally, they had a hard time finding a place to play at all.
Riding in the van
Ringenberg, now 42, came to Nashville from Illinois farm country. Raised on Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones -- as well as country music -- he was ready to light up the town. After a few gigs on his own and with a friend, Jack Emerson, he put together what was originally called the Nashville Scorchers.
The band included guitarist Warner Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson, and drummer Perry Baggs. Emerson became the band's manager.
The group, recalls Hodges, 42, put on a show wherever they could make a dollar.
"In those days there weren't even country hat bars," he says. "We had nowhere to play, so we kinda created a rock scene. We'd load our van and play shows all over the place for whoever would pay us. We put 186,000 miles on that van."
In 1983, the band released an EP, "Fervor," which contained a blistering cover of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie." The song didn't get played on country radio, but found a home on college stations, then in their heyday.
Things happened quickly for Jason and the Scorchers then: a well-reviewed LP, "Lost and Found"; an MTV-played video for the single "Shop It Around"; and frequent tour dates with R.E.M., with whom the band had struck up an early acquaintance. Jason and the Scorchers looked ready to hit the big time.
And then ... nothing.
"One reason we never sold records en masse was because we couldn't get on radio," says Ringenberg. Or as Hodges put it: "We were too country for rock, and too rock for country."
The band soon fell victim to various rock 'n' roll ailments. The successor to "Lost and Found" didn't have the same snap. Egos grew, and alcohol consumption grew with them. The band broke up in 1989.
"We just ran out of steam," says Ringenberg. "It was time for a break."
'George Jones to Metallica'
But the breakup would not be permanent. In the mid-1990s, with the band now thought of as trailblazers, the Scorchers reformed for a handful of concerts.
"There was a lot of alternative country talk," says Ringenberg. "People were interested in seeing the band play."
The cuts on "Wildfires and Misfires" illustrate why. The band rips through live versions of the old Johnny Burnette tune "Tear It Up" with guest guitarist Link Wray, and Tony Joe White's 1969 hit "Polk Salad Annie." Even the studio demos, including "Absolutely Sweet Marie," capture enough lightning to illuminate a midsize city.
The CD's intention was originally to celebrate 20 years together, says Ringenberg, who has also released several solo records. "But as I got deeper into it, I realized it was more profound. It told the story of the band," he adds.
Hodges, who now owns a construction company in Nashville that builds recording studios and houses, says he was "pleasantly surprised" by the CD -- despite the occasionally less-than-perfect conditions under which some of the songs were recorded. "Some of it was recorded with cassette players," he laughs. "But I was really happy with it overall."
The band still performs on an occasional basis, and still attracts crowds, says Hodges. And they can still play.
"It's really nice to see 20 years come and go and still be able to do it, without commercial success," says Hodges.
But when people ask what kind of band they were, Hodges doesn't know what to say. How do you describe a group that played music -- country, rock, whatever -- as if they were trying to raise souls from the dead and tick off your parents at the same time?
"I don't know what to tell them," says Hodges. "We played George Jones to Metallica and all points in between."
And that's enough to wake even sleepy Nashville up.
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