Hillbilly cats with a serious punk streak, Jason and the Scorchers were — in their early days — about as un-Nashville as a Nashville-based band could be. The group set out to blend incompatible elements and succeeded well beyond their expectations, mixing dirty roots rock, nihilistic, energy-crazed hardcore and traditional cornball country, spiked with dashes of blues and gospel. It may ultimately be little different than what Jerry Lee Lewis did, but few artists can presume to approach the Killer’s outlaw majesty the way the Scorchers do when everything clicks.
In 1981, as the legend goes, Jason Ringenberg left his daddy’s Illinois hog farm for the bright lights of Nashville and promptly stumbled upon guitarist Warner Hodges and bassist Jeff Johnson in a gutter. With drummer Perry Baggs, they became Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. The original Reckless Country Soul — a Hank Williams classic, a Jimmie Rodgers number and a pair of originals, all recorded live to 4-track and issued on a modest 7-inch by a local independent label — was clearly a formative work. The reissue — augmented by a leftover from the band’s first session, five outtakes from studio time later in ’82 and an unlisted bonus — is an entertaining snapshot of the boys rooting around for a style to call their own. In a wild and randy cover of Carl Perkins’ “Gone Gone Gone” and the ripsnorting medley of Kostas’ “I’d Rather Die Young” and George Morgan’s “Candy Kisses,” they stumble right into it.
While the Fervor EP kicked the renamed band into high gear (the disc’s major-label re-release brought the track count up to seven with a barn-burning cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie”), Lost & Found is a sizzler from start to finish. The album put the Scorchers in the forefront of the country-punk genre, only they had the roots others lacked: Hodges’ folks toured with Johnny Cash, Baggs’ dad sang gospel and Johnson was reared in the Blue Ridge Mountains. More than just a pedigree to brag about, the band’s genuine hick beginnings make them a lot less inhibited and more apt to cross from cool to corny, punk to heavy metal without fretting much about it. There’s great tension between Ringenberg’s two sides — bible-quoting, straitlaced country boy and yelping, flailing, demon-possessed madman — and the cigarette-chomping, white-noise-mongering Hodges. Terry Manning’s clean, echoey production seems a bit sterile, but there’s no denying the band’s righteous fury. On Lost & Found, Jason and the Scorchers burn like nothing since General Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia. Red-hot originals like “White Lies” and “Last Time Around” (not to mention soulful covers of moldy oldies “Lost Highway” and “I Really Don’t Want to Know”) render discussions of genre bending, or blending, moot. (The aptly, if optimistically, titled Essential Volume One compiles Fervor and Lost & Found in their entirety, plus four odds and ends.)
Maintaining that breathtaking intensity was probably impossible — not even the best band can deliver a killer live show every single night. Still Standing was produced by Tom Werman (Cheap Trick, Mötley Crüe, Poison), who captured the Scorchers’ melodic power without overdoing it or pushing any obvious commercial concessions down their throats. The folky “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait” and the equally optimistic “Crashin’ Down” are pretty, memorable and uplifting; “Shotgun Blues” and “Ghost Town” give Hodges plenty of encouragement to unleash his wildest electric dreams. A charging cover of “19th Nervous Breakdown” acknowledges the band’s clear debt to the Stones and proves that Jason and the boys know just how to treat a piece of classic rock.
By the time the Scorchers delivered their long-come (and long-gone: they broke up soon afterwards) third album, the group was sporting a second guitarist and a new bassist. Rather than successfully integrating the group’s stylistic impulses, Thunder and Fire divides them into reheated rockers that short the Scorchers’ personality and semi-acoustic country numbers that seem out of place. With Jason’s good-ol’-boy voice undercutting Hodges’ raucous guitar fury (and vice versa), only “Bible and a Gun” (co-written by Steve Earle), Phil Ochs’ propulsive “My Kingdom for a Car” and the bluesy “Away from You” mix up a truly potent blend.
Ringenberg’s 1992 solo album, dubiously credited to “Jason,” was a misguided attempt to infiltrate the country mainstream. A host of Music City reliables — from producer Jerry Crutchfield to slick session players to trusty songwriters like Dennis Linde, Paul Kennerly and Kevin Welch — are on hand, but the feeling’s all wrong. The contrast between Jason’s insistent drawl — he couldn’t relax if his life depended on it — and his glib colleagues suggests two records playing at once.
A few years later, all the original members reunited to fire up Jason and the Scorchers again; A Blazing Grace, the quartet’s electrifying 1995 reunion album, is the best thing they’ve done in a decade. There’s nothing new here, just plenty of slashing, go-for-broke rock’n’roll like “Cry by Night Operator,” “One More Day of Weekend” and “American Legion Party,” all of which are about as intellectual as they sound. The wicked cover of George Jones’ “Why Baby Why” almost stands up to the original, but the standout may be, believe it or not, an atomic version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”