The year is 1982, on the Sunday before Labor Day; the place is Cat’s Records, on West End Avenue in Nashville. A thousand people have packed the store’s parking lot to see Jason & the Scorchers, who in the past year have taken the city by storm with their shotgun marriage of country music and punk rock.
“We had flatbed trucks pulled up in the parking lot,” remembered Steve West, who promoted the Cat’s show and now runs Nashville’s 328 Performance Hall and Go West Presents. “We didn’t have backdrops or anything — just a P.A.” The lack of pageantry only heightened the immediacy between audience and performer, emphasizing the anything-could-happen mood that marked Scorchers shows at the time. On this particular night, the crowd’s excitement was at fever pitch; the band had just pulled back into town after a series of road dates promoting the release of their debut EP, Reckless Country Soul.
“During the first song,” West recalled, “Jason slammed the microphone into his mouth and broke his tooth off.”
Adrenaline must have masked singer Jason Ringenberg’s pain, because he performed like a man possessed, even by his own maniacal standards. During one of guitarist Warner Hodges’ lead breaks on “White Lies”, Ringenberg shot up the store’s signpole, an American flag in tow, like an explorer who had just discovered some uncharted frontier.
Jason & the Scorchers’ historical moment had come and gone long before “Americana” became a radio format and No Depression became a magazine, but the Nashville-based rockers have as much claim to being founders of today’s alternative-country movement as any group to emerge in punk’s wake. No other band boasts the Scorchers’ country pedigree, none rocks as savagely, and none has a recorded legacy that can touch the mid-’80s triptych of Restless Country Soul, Fervor and Lost and Found.
The Scorchers’ influence on Uncle Tupelo, the Bottle Rockets and countless others is undeniable. It may be commonplace now for roots-rockers to perform cover versions of classic honky-tonk songs, but back when the Scorchers were running Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Eddy Arnold through their punk blender, it just wasn’t done — it might even get you hurt or run out of town.
“Literally, you could go into certain places and do what we were doin’ with country music — forging it, melding it, slamming it together with punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll — and get beat up. And we almost did several times,” said Ringenberg, recalling the band’s early ’80s heyday during an interview in the back room of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville, two weeks before the early October release of the Scorchers’ inspired new album, Clear Impetuous Morning (Mammoth/Atlantic).
Whereas A Blazing Grace, the Scorchers’ 1995 reunion album, proved that the band could still rock and still had something to say, their new record finds them kicking their way back to the top of the cowpunk — or, in today’s parlance, alternative-country — heap. Raging with affirmation and insight, and playing with relentless mid-’80s intensity, Clear Impetuous Morning is the Scorchers taking command of the musical subgenre they all but invented. While the new album finally may earn them the recognition they’re due, Ringenberg isn’t exaggerating about the hostile receptions the Scorchers often encountered back when they were taking early-’80s Nashville by storm. At the time, many believed the Scorchers were poking fun at country music. Little did they know that the foursome were devoted to the sounds they grew up listening to on the Grand Ole Opry. Nor were they aware that guitarist Hodges’ parents played with Johnny Cash, or that drummer Perry Baggs’ father sang old-timey gospel.
Others, like the Vanderbilt coeds who almost booed the Scorchers offstage when they opened for the Talking Heads in 1982, simply missed the point. But nothing, not even the prospect of getting their asses kicked, could stop Ringenberg, Baggs, Hodges and bassist Jeff Johnson from unleashing the glorious noise they heard banging around inside their heads.
“Mixing country and punk seemed a natural thing to do,” Ringenberg said. “Warner, Jeff and Perry — they knew country music and played it a lot. But they were also fierce, ferocious rock ‘n’ rollers. Then here comes this kid off an Illinois hog farm that’s never even been south of the Mason-Dixon Line who still’s got hog poop on his shoes,” he continued. “You put all that together and it was just an outrageous chemistry.”
Early live dates at Nashville punk clubs such as Cantrell’s, Phrank ‘n’ Stein’s and the Cannery were more like explosive chemical reactions. “Those shows were totally spontaneous,” Ringenberg said. “The rock community in Nashville was just discovering itself and the Scorchers were discovering what we were. Some of those shows were really bad and some of them were transcendent, brilliant.” The Cat’s Records show in ’82 certainly fell into the transcendent category, as did a second performance there in 1985, which drew 5,000 fans and brought traffic to a halt on the city’s major East-West corridor.
Ringenberg’s electrifying Jerry Lee Lewis-meets-Iggy Pop stage attack was what attracted Johnson and Hodges — and, later, Baggs — to the singer in the first place. Johnson was the first member of what eventually became the Scorchers’ classic lineup to see the edition of the band Ringenberg assembled upon arriving in Music City during the summer of 1981. The fledgling Scorchers were sharing a bill at Cantrell’s with then-regionally acclaimed indie-rockers R.E.M. Immediately after the show, Johnson called Hodges and invited him to Ringenberg’s next gig. This time, it was a slot opening for rockabilly legend Carl Perkins.
“I went to the Carl Perkins show and thought, ‘God Almighty, this guy is nuts,’ remembered Hodges, referring to Ringenberg’s incendiary performance. “He spent the entire night in the crowd with this long guitar cord. Everybody else up onstage was scared to death. But Jason, man, he was the show.”