Consider the options for a Nashville music fan circa 1981. Country was in its post-Urban Cowboy decline (Alabama’s “Love In The First Degree” and Kenny Rogers’ “I Don’t Need You” were two of the year’s biggest hits). Journey, Styx and Ted Nugent dominated the rock airwaves. The local scene was negligible, except when a certain mumble-mouthed college band drove up from Athens, Georgia.
Imagine introducing into this atmosphere a lanky hick from an Illinois pig farm who wore a goofy faux-leopard cowboy hat and shiny fringed shirts that made him look like Porter Wagoner on mescaline, a guy who whipped his body around as furiously as he did his microphone cord. Back him with three of the town’s most notorious rockers, including a guitarist who looked like Gene Simmons without makeup (though nobody knew that at the time).
They sang about all the grand ole country themes — whiskey, women, Southern alienation — and ripped through the catalogs of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Eddy Arnold at three times the speed anybody ever intended them to be played. The singer yelped and howled and hit the guitarist about as often as he did his intended note, but he could tap into the Southern legacies of storytelling and resentment over damage done by outsiders more than a century before.
That was Jason & the Scorchers.
For hundreds of kids in Nashville — and thousands more throughout the South — Jason & the Scorchers presented a new idea of what live music could be, much like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones had done for other kids a few years earlier. Not only did the Scorchers offer new potential for rock, they reintroduced country’s honky-tonk heritage to a group who had grown up viewing country as the dull, oppressive music of their parents.
Some of those kids wound up working for Nashville record companies, booking agencies, music publishers and the like. And the ideas the Scorchers placed in their heads paved the way for rock-influenced country acts such as Dwight Yoakam and the Kentucky HeadHunters, not to mention the Americana format that would be born a decade later. The Scorchers themselves didn’t benefit directly from any of this, of course, and they disbanded for five years in 1990 — just as Garth Brooks, who took a more conciliatory approach to combining rock and country, was beginning to take over the city.
The Scorchers haven’t had the same impact with the two studio albums they’ve released since reuniting in 1995, but they’ve given alt.country fans a touchstone that shows them the potential for the style in a live setting. Midnight Roads & Stages Seen, a two-disc set recorded last November over three nights in the familiar, beer-soaked confines of Nashville’s Exit/In, captures that live sound, if not the significant visual component of the band’s explosive performances. (There is, however, a corresponding video.)
Poetry-spouting lead singer Jason Ringenberg opens the album with a Rudyard Kipling quote, while guitarist Warner Hodges often sounds like he’s trying to play rhythm and lead and the same time — and usually succeeds. The rhythm section, which consists of original drummer Perry Baggs and new bassist Kenny Ames, gets stronger the faster they play.
Midnight Roads & Stages Seen includes songs from nearly all eras of Scorchers history. Both “Broken Whiskey Glass”, the first original tune the band learned, and “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel” appeared on the Reckless Country Soul EP in 1982. “Going Nowhere” and the album-opening “Self Sabotage” come from 1996′s Clear Impetuous Morning (only 1989′s Thunder And Fire, the group’s arena-rock bid, isn’t represented).
The album includes a few tunes, such as “Somewhere Within”, from from 1995′s A Blazing Grace, that the band doesn’t usually play live. Mostly, though, it consists of longstanding set list favorites such as “If Money Talks”, “White Lies” and “Help! There’s A Fire”, honky-tonk tunes that Scorchers fans can quote as freely as they can any Lefty Frizzell tune. There’s also a screaming version of “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, the Flamin’ Groovies-inspired Bob Dylan cover that has remained the band’s signature tune.
If there’s any doubt about the subtle subversive influence the Scorchers have had on Nashville, just take a look at their guest list. Todd Snider sings harmony on the album’s one new tune, “This Town Isn’t Keeping You Down”, which he co-wrote with Ringenberg. BR5-49 fiddler Don Herron fills out “Blanket Of Sorrow” and the rarely performed “Ocean Of Doubt”. Mavericks keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden, who backed Jason during his brief solo sojourn of the early ’90s, also makes a guest appearance on a couple tracks.
But none of them can top the appearance by Hodges’ parents, Edgar and Blanche Hodges, who provide one of the album’s highlights when they join the Scorchers onstage. (“This is one I used to rock him to sleep to,” Blanche says as she introduces a rip-snorthing rave-up of Rufus Thomas’ “Walkin’ the Dog”, on which she sings lead.)
It’s that kind of intimate yet high-volume moment that separates Midnight Roads from most live albums. Elsewhere, Ringenberg dedicates a song to his midwife and flashes moments of cornpone wit (“That’s funnier when Little Jimmy Dickens does it,” he muses after copping Dickens’ joke about being “Willie Nelson after taxes”), things he can get away with only because he knows almost everyone in the crowded club by name.
After 17 years of those “midnight roads,” Jason & the Scorchers sound neither as ambitious nor as desperate as they once did. If they don’t sound as iconoclastic, either, it’s because other bands have had 15 years to try to recreate the Scorchers’ inspired vision. Even though Midnight Roads & Stages Seen ultimately falls short of providing the full Scorchers experience, it’s proof that those other bands still have a ways to go.