The Scorchers’ 1995 comeback album, A Blazing Grace (Mammoth), symbolized their spiritual rebirth. It didn’t break new ground musically or lyrically, but it rocked harder than either Thunder and Fire or One Foot in the Honky Tonk, Ringenberg’s 1992 solo effort for Capitol. “What A Blazing Grace did for us, way beyond what it may have sold, was make people aware of the band again,” Ringenberg said. “It also got us back together as a band.” Indeed, enthusiasm for the record — and for the Scorchers’ reunion in general — got the group’s members looking again toward the future.
Today Ringenberg and Hodges, both nearing 40, exude an emotional and spiritual maturity that’s almost disarming, coming from two of post-punk’s wildest showmen. But both agree it is this newfound perspective on life that makes Clear Impetuous Morning — recorded this past spring at Bakos Amp Works in Atlanta — such an uplifting record.
“Clear Impetuous Morning was just a great labor of love,” Ringenberg said. “We never talked about sales. We never talked about what we were gonna do with it until it was done. After it was done, we said, ‘Okay, let’s get this thing out there.’ But while we were making it, we did it just for the pure joy of making it.
“That’s not to say every song doesn’t have its share of pain, heartache and suffering in it,” he continued. “But there’s an element of joy and exuberance behind every song and every lick on there. A Blazing Grace was an answer to the past. Clear Impetuous Morning is definitely charging into the future with very few inhibitions. It’s remarkable for what we’ve been through, personally and as a band.”
Indeed, the delight with which Ringenberg sings the phrase “Oh what a rush” to kick off the album is enough to get anybody’s heart racing. Co-producers Johnson and Hodges sustain that immediacy and sense of abandon throughout. The rhythm section is devastatingly tight, and Hodges’ guitar work, which avoids what he calls “pyrotechnic, whammy-bar crap,” is as muscular and imaginative as ever.
“I made a conscious effort to stay out of ground I’ve already covered,” he said. “When Jeff and I were working on the guitar tracks, I said, ‘If you hear something that you’ve heard 400 times before, just stop me.’” Songs such as “Uncertain Girl” and “Tomorrow Has Come Today” reveal that Hodges’ playing has taken a melodic turn, at times reminiscent of Bob Mould’s phrasing from the mid-’80s glory days of Hüsker Dü. Elsewhere, he conjures the punked-up Chuck Berry aesthetic of kindred spirits Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders.
Ringenberg’s singing and command of narrative are likewise undiminished. “Going Nowhere” and “Cappuccino Rosie”, both co-written with Nashvillian Tommy Womack, exhibit as much humanity, humor and pathos as early Scorchers classics such as “Still Tied” and “Broken Whiskey Glass”. But these new songs don’t merely evoke timeless verities about longing and loss, they flesh out their themes with characters and stories listeners can connect with. Nowadays, Ringenberg sings less of sin than salvation: The resiliency and hope that can be heard on “Self-Sabotage” and “Everything Has A Cost” — the latter a gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris that seems a lock for Americana programmers’ playlists — are no doubt born of the band’s own struggle and rebirth.
But the moral and musical high point of Clear Impetuous Morning is a demolition of “Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man”, the Gram Parsons/Roger McGuinn sendup of Ralph Emory, the Nashville deejay-cum-veejay who in the late ’60s dismissed the Byrds’ visionary synthesis of country music and rock ‘n’ roll.
“We started playing ‘Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man’ during the A Blazing Grace tour,” said Ringenberg. “We try to work up at least one or two covers for every tour. The song worked really well live. We had a lot of fun with it. Conceptually, it’s a crime that the Scorchers never did a Gram Parsons song. But this one seemed like the perfect choice. We’re from Nashville and we’ve been slammed by Ralph, you know, the whole nine yards.
“We sing it with a lot of pride,” Ringenberg continued. “Because we feel like you have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to sing ‘Drugstore Truck Drivin’ Man’ and to remake it. We’re proud of the fact that people are saying that we’ve done the song justice.”
The Parsons connection also rings true from a legacy standpoint: From the rock side of the equation, only Parsons can match the Scorchers’ influence on today’s alt-country movement. The Scorchers may have enjoyed plenty of acclaim during the mid-’80s, but if the Americana chart had been around back then, they likely would have reached a wider audience.
“I have no bitterness or darts to throw,” said Ringenberg, referring to the lack of convergence between the Scorchers’ heyday and the current alternative-country boom. “I’m kinda proud that people point to us as one of the pioneers. It’s validation, and that makes us feel good.”
Ringenberg has obviously kept up with the current crop of country rockers, some of whom probably formed bands in part because of the Scorchers’ influence. “There are some awfully good people out there,” he said, singling out Wayne Hancock, the Backsliders and Uncle Tupelo offshoots Son Volt, Wilco and Courtesy Move, among others. “Any time you have a form of music or movement, there are good bands and bad bands, people copying and people leading the charge creatively. But I’ve gotta hand it to folks who are trying to make something viable out of this, because it’s hard for artists who are doing this kind of thing because you can’t get on country radio and it’s hard to get on rock radio. So I think it’s a good thing.
“One thing I do resent,” he added, “is how a lot of people in the alternative-country world still slam Nashville. That really bothers me because there’s a lot of great music here. I mean, Hank Sr. came out of Nashville. Sure, there’s been a lot of bad stuff. But there’s also been a lot of brilliant, brilliant music that’s come out of this town. Even lately, there have been some great things. Steve Earle came out of Nashville, you know. It always bothers me when people take this anti-Nashville stance and say that everything out of Nashville is corporate schlock. That’s not the case at all. This is a great, great town for making music. The Scorchers are proud to be from here.
“We’re from the other side of the tracks, no doubt — but those are beautiful tracks.”