Jason and the Scorchers
by Alan Crandall (July 1998)
If you happened to turn on Late Night With Conan O'Brien a few months ago, you might have seen something very strange.
His musical guests: a long-haired, red-neck-trucker type swayed back and forth while hammering away at the biggest bass guitar seen since John Entwistle's heyday; a little troll of a man made funny faces while whomping away on his drum kit; the guitar player, who seemed to have wandered in from some local heavy-metal bar, was blasting out power chords and fast licks like some kind of roots-rock Eddie Van Halen, while periodically spinning himself around, the guitar held perpendicular to his chest by centrifugal force; meanwhile, a skinny, gawky spaz in an outrageous cowboy suit and hat whirled around the stage, performed awkward/graceful "dance" steps, flailed his arms like a madman, fanned the guitar player with his jacket, blew a harmonica solo and, while doing all of the above, howled out a song that could only be descirbed as "country," even if the band could only be called rock`n'roll.
Even O'Brien seemed a little stunned. Who the fuck were these insane people? Ladies and gents, Jason and the Scorchers.
In the 1960's, Gram Parson made the fateful re-discovery that country music was at the roots of rock`n'roll, as surely as blues or r&b. Actually he wasn't the only one The Beatles had covered Buck Owens, The Stones did Hank Snow (and later, via association with Parsons, would pen their own rocking country songs). John Fogerty remembered, too - thus "a dinosaur Victoria/listening to Buck Owens" in "Lookin' Out My Back Door," and later the whole Blue Ridge Rangers album, a classic. Parsons also reminded The Byrds of their country roots, thus sparking the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. But by and large, and largely due to the growing rigidity of popular radio, which relegated country, rock, black music, and everything else, to their own little air slots (and if you want to know what killed good music after the '60's, there's one of the main culprits right there), country music and rock`n'roll, by the late '60's, were becoming two separate entities.
Another reason for this is guilt by association - by the late '60's, rock music had become the sound of the counterculture; it symbolized everything it's audience believed in: an end to the war in Vietnam, free love, smoking dope, and all things countercultural. Country music had come to symbolize everything establishment - a listen to Merle Haggard's infamous "Okie From Muskogee" or "The Fightin' Side Of Me" is instructive. The fact that Haggard meant "Okie" as something from a joke had no bearing on the fact that most listeners took him at face value, and loved, or hated him, for it.
Today, it's even more true. Leaving aside record freaks and music-lovers like myself, the rock audience is unremittingly hostile to country music - I once had an avowed Eagles and Grateful Dead fan practically foaming at the mouth for mentioning that both of the aforementioned are heavily influenced by country music a fact only the clueless or ignorant could possibly fail to perceive. Try pointing out to a Stones fan that "Honky Tonk Woman" is, in fact, a country song go ahead, try it!
By the '80's, this kind of thinking was pretty firmly entrenched. Meanwhile, country music was undergoing a re-shaping, thanks to Urban Cowboy and other absurdities. The music, at least it's most visible end, was continuing it's trend away from traditional sounds to a more pop-rock orientation. What passed for country on the Billboard charts was mostly closer to The Eagles or even Billy Joel; "lite" rock with a little bit of "twang" for flavoring. The old-timers, and those who stuck to their guns, started to get the cold shoulder; by 1983, Johnny Cash found himself unceremoniously dumped from Columbia, his label of the past thirty years.
Such was the state when a young band began to tear up Nashville's tiny punk/underground scene. Jason Ringenberg, hog-farmer from Illinois, had his eclectic taste - a love for classic country music in all it's forms, combined with a passion for rockabilly, classic 60's rock`n'roll, and the sheer power and drive of punk rock, found some like-minded mental cases - with Warner Hodges on guitar, Perry Baggs on drums, and Jeff Johnson on bass, he put it all together into something that was genuinely new; a band that played pure country music, except they played it like The Ramones.
The term "country-rock" conjures up a mellow, pleasant, front-porch kind of sound The Grateful Dead, The Eagles, Linda Rondstadt this is not how Jason and the Scorchers sounded.
Warner Hodges had grown up with country music (his parents were professional musicians, and had even provided back-up for several big names, including Johnny Cash); but in his teens, he got turned on by Jimi Hendrix, and AC/DC. So, while quite capable of picking out pure Luther Perkins licks (which he did, when he wanted to), he cranked his guitar up all the way and let rip, cramming the songs with power chords and pure white-noise/blues guitar licks ala Angus Young. There was nothing fancy about the rhythm section: Baggs and Johnson just whomped the sucker as hard as they could. As for Jason, he whooped, hollered, yelped and howled, using all the tricks he'd learned off of rockabilly records to make the most of his limited but powerful voice, all delivered in an unmistakable southern drawl`n'twang. They sounded like one of Dave Dudley's big-rigs barrelling down the highway at 200 mph. There was nothing genteel or reverent about them this was hard, fast, LOUD music. The music, and their wild stage show, were designed to whip an audience into a frenzy. They did.
And, it was real country music. Not the watered-down adult contemporary of then (and still)-current Nashville. Jason had an innate understanding of the tradition of country music songwriting: cheating, drinking, love lost and found, commitment, sin and salvation, old-fashioned values, a sense of history and sometimes, a sense of the macabre. Lines like "I tried to fight through that emptiness/I feel every time you undress" ("Broken Whiskey Glass") come straight from George Jones territory. "Shot Down Again" started off as almost a parody: Jason's girl just can't stop cheating on him, and worse than that, he can't get any; "when I tried to kiss her/Jerry Falwell shot tear gas in my eyes," but then takes a sudden dark turn into the Rubber Room ("Well I went to love my little girl/She had a golden wedding band/I walked these midnight streets alone/Bloodstains on my hands "). "If You've Got The Love (I've Got the Time)" was trash-county so accurate, most thought it was a cover. Of course, they did play covers; country chestnuts by Hank Williams, Faron Young, and Jimmie Rodgers, rockabilly from Carl Perkins, rock`n'roll from The Rolling Stones.
In the '90's, there's a host of bands who play a hard rock/country hybrid, in 1981, there was no one. Jason and the Scorchers were something genuinely new and different (although the country sound would take hold on the West Coast around the same time, thanks to The Blasters, X, Rank and File, and later, The Beat Farmers and Long Ryders). In Nashville, The Scorchers were quickly popular, and controversial. Nashville didn't take kindly to having their chestnuts smashed by this bunch of lunatics, but, based on a plethora of Nashville news broadcasts that circulate on video, the general reaction seems to have been one of bemusement.
They gained momentum fast. A week after their first gig (January 1982), they laid down Reckless Country Soul in a three-hour session. The disc (long-impossible to find, but now reissued with outtakes by Mammoth) captured their sound brilliantly. Within a year, they had a major-label deal with EMI. They shared stages with R.E.M. (with Michael Stipe appearing on their next EP), The Replacements, and legends like Carl Perkins. The Fervor EP followed in `84. If anything, they were even more overpowering, leaving behind the spare, rootsy sound of Reckless Country Soul in favor of a full-throttle roar. "Help! There's A Fire" from Reckless was here transformed from a country blues to a rockabilly romp with Buddy Holly-esque vocals from Jason. "I Can't Help Myself," their latest country massacre, went from a frantic buildup to a full firestorm, while "Pray For Me Mama (I'm A Gypsy Now)" (another remake from Reckless), and "Harvest Moon" offered further proof of Jason's gift for country songwriting. Best of all was "Both Sides of the Line," a Yardbirds-like rave-up filled with ominous apocalyptic imagery ("But if the mountains fall down and the seas around/Could crumble in my midst/I'd trade it all for a midnight call/And just one holy kiss"). A roaring cover of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" became a critic's fave.
Soon they were assured Next Big Thing status, and EMI started giving them The Push. Lost and Found, their first full-length LP, wasn't quite the breakthrough for them it seemed a little low on first-rate new material. Still the onstage fave "White Lies," the great hillbilly stomp called "Blanket Of Sorrow," terrific covers of "Lost Highway" and "I Really Don't Want To Know" (done as a mean blues-rocker), a definitive "Broken Whiskey Glass" (another remake from Reckless) and the lovely "Far Behind" were nothing to be ashamed of.
I saw them that summer at the packed Keystone in Palo Alto, CA. Onstage, they were incendiary. I have never seen a band so determined to put an audience on their knees. Loud, frantic, thrashing about the stage like crazy men. Jason, who looked like Hector Heathcoat in a suit that would embarrassed Nudie, leaned into a young woman's face, close enough to have kissed her instead he let out with a mighty cowboy yell, then flung himself off the stage, into the audience, and somehow ended up running across tables (those that weren't already occupied by dancing fans) while blasting away on his harp. In good cowboy style, he never once lost his hat, either. To this day, it remains one of the three or four most exciting live rock`n'roll shows I've ever seen.
If I may digress for a moment: If there's one thing the rock audience, and rock performers, have forgotten, it's how to be crazy onstage. I remember a friend grimacing at the sight of Joe "King" Carrasco on Saturday Night Live, prancing around in his underwear with a crown on his head ("That guy's an idiot!"). We all know Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd would never stoop to such silliness.
In the beginning, rock`n'roll musicians were all crazy. Elvis shook and gyrated and generally shocked (and excited) middle America. Little Richard pounded his piano, played with his feet, howled like a madman and got away with being as fruity as you possibly could in the mid-50's; Chuck Berry duck-walked and shook all over a stage, while Screamin' Jay Hawkins popped out of a coffin; and Jerry Lee Lewis well he did all of these and more. In the 60's, there were still some who remembered: James Brown, Mick Jagger, The Who, Hendrix, Iggy. But more and more, we got the Eric Clapton syndrome - the rock musician as Serious Artist - back to the audience, in commune with his instrument, pulling genius out of some deep inner part of himself. It's remained a model ever since. End of digression.
For the next couple years, they toured hard and played the game while EMI publicity beat the bushes. However, EMI wasn't getting the hit they wanted. Still Standing, their `86 followup, solidified their strengths they were, if anything, better than ever. Great songs like the "Tumblin' Dice" knockoff "Golden Ball and Chain" (The Stones are also done tribute here by a cover of "19th Nervous Breakdown"), the furious blues rock of "Shotgun Blues," and the country boogie "My Heart Still Stands With You" were the highlights. It was on that tour that I saw them for the second (and so far, last) time. It was at a place called One Step Beyond, a cavernous club that actually booked a surprisingly hip lineup of acts in the mid-'80's. That time, they played to perhaps 20 people, perhaps 12. I remember standing right up in front, turning around and noticing that the crowd of us gathered around the stage constituted everyone in the club. The show was less frantic than the first time, but they still came out full-throttle, taking requests ("Polk Salad Annie" - Tony Joe White's swamp-rock hit, also one of their B-sides) and surprises: Bobby Womack's "It's All Over Now," a final, gentle "Amazing Grace," and best of all, a murderous assault on "Country Roads Take Me Home," taken at 11 on the volume and 90 mph - hilarious, and rockin'!
As the above may indicate, Still Standing didn't sell. EMI dumped them, and for a time they seemed to vanish from the face of the earth.
They broke the silence in 1989, when Thunder and Fire suddenly appeared. Y'know what it's like when you buy an album you can't wait to hear, get it home and feel disappointed, try and try to like and then realize it's just not that hot? It started off good even though "When The Angels Cry" is clearly aimed straight at AOR, pure MTV arena-rock, it's so impassioned that they get away with it. Despite some highlights (a typically Scorcherized cover of Phil Ochs' "My Kingdom For A Car," "Bible And A Gun" co-written with Steve Earle, and Perry's blues-rock workout "Six Feet Underground"), most of Thunder sounded generic and rather ordinary. Plain and simple, Jason and company hadn't come up with enough interesting songs. In the meantime, the band had switched labels (to A&M), lost Jeff Johnson and added a second guitar player.
And that was it. Except for a showcase gig in Los Angeles, there doesn't seem to have been much of a tour. The band broke up, blaming lack of success and personal problems (read: drugs, booze, not getting along).
Now if you'll excuse a little personal digression. As the years passed, I sort of filed Jason and the Scorchers away. Occasionally I'd dig the albums out and groove on them again, and regret that they hadn't stuck it out. Jason (now having dropped his last name) put out a solo album in 1992, One Foot in the Honky Tonk. It flopped too. Not surprisingly, because it was very much a schizophrenic thing, mixing Scorchers-esque rockers that would have come across a lot stronger with a band that really knew how to play them ("Hard Luck Boy"), a handful of hard country gems ("One Foot in the Honky Tonk," "I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water") and a batch of pleasant pop-country numbers that were brilliant compared to Garth Brooks or Alan Jackson, but pretty thin compared to the glories of his past.
One night in 1995, I was driving a friend back from an evening's drinking, and had a Scorchers tape in the car. So I put it on. He'd never heard of them, but liked them immediately. Then, just a week or two later, he shows up with a copy of Rolling Stone: "Hey, check it out: Jason and the Scorchers have a new album!" And there it was. Not a compilation, not a posthumous live album . an actual brand-new Jason and the Scorchers album!
Jeff Johnson had apparently cajoled the band members back together for an anniversary show in Nashville. During rehearsals and the fated gig, they'd realized they had something, and decided to give it another whirl.
A Blazing Grace was a better album than one could have hoped for. Not perfect their cover of George Jones' "Why Baby Why" rips, but there's a stiffness there that wasn't around in the early days. But "Cry By Night Operator," "200 Proof Lovin'" and, finally preserved for all time, "Country Roads Take Me Home" are prime Scorchers. The other tracks were all good if not brilliant.
Still, The Scorchers kept a low profile, touring only in their good towns; the South, Midwest, and Europe (American roots music seems to always do well in Europe). Their next opus, Clear Impetuous Morning, appeared without much fanfare a couple years later. It starts off great with "Self-Sabotage," a major Scorchers classic, then gets weird with "Cappuccino Rosie," picks up for a great take on Gram Parsons' "Drugstore Truck Drivin' Man" (about time, guys), moves into country territory with "Going Nowhere" (good, not great), and then falls apart in a mishmash of "the anonymous hard-rock/heavy-metal guitar sound that defined AOR radio in the '80s" (thanks, All-Music Guide) which is not only uninteresting, but dated in the worst possible way. Apparently, Jason and the Scorchers' idea of a mainstream rock song is about ten years out of date, or more. They finally save face with "Jeremy's Glory," a Civil War epic, but it's a little late. In interviews at the time, Jason went on about how they busted their nuts to make the best album they could, but overall it's their least interesting release.
Which brings us to Midnight Roads and Stages Seen, a live album celebrating their history, and a clear bid for Bigger Time. Live albums are rarely among an artist's finest work (to be sure, there are exceptions). They're basically gifts to the fans (and as such, highly appreciated), a way to mark time, and sometimes a way to close off a phase of one's career. One reason you don't hear many raves from critics about live albums is, quite frankly, they're not very interesting to write or talk about. Live remakes of old songs; generally a pretty safe selection, usually a surprise or two thrown in for good measure and to help attract sales.
This one pretty much plays the game, too. The "hits" and crowd-pleasers are here, there's a new song ("This Town Isn't Keeping You Down," good but not great), and a surprise Warner Hodges' parents join them for a rockin' "Walkin' the Dog" (Warner's mom coulda been a contender she's got a great rockabilly-type voice -- and in fact has an album of her own in the hopper). Jason and the Scorchers are a great live band, but they need to be seen for full appreciation. That being said, there are moments here that easily live up to their rep: "Self-Sabotage" starts things off with a bang; "Absolutely Sweet Marie" improves on the poor-sounding live B-side version from `85; "Golden Ball and Chain" and "Both Sides of the Line" get estimable workouts, and "Harvest Moon" is an absolute motherfucker; the band swings into the last verse as hard as they can. It's the kind of thing that's hard to put into words you know it when you hear it.
Midnight Roads has led to their most aggressive attempt at winning over the public since Lost and Found. They're touring extensively (though still not on the West Coast, where they haven't played in close to ten years) and played their first New York gig in many years this past April. They've made a major television appearance and are scheduled, as of this writing, to appear on The Nashville Network in July. They seem to be grabbing for the brass ring again.
The question that seems to come up again and again, with Jason and the Scorchers and countless others (The Replacements, Richard Thompson) is why haven't they made it? If they're so damn good, how come they're not selling 50 million albums?
It's a stupid question, really. Especially in an e-zine that's focused on underground/obscure/cult/otherwise left-of-center music and musicians; especially when it's possible for artists with such limited commercial potential as Tom Waits or Frank Zappa to build up large and hungry cult followings without ever having a Top 40 hit or going into heavy rotation on MTV - hell, even the no-hit Paul Westerberg rapidly sells out every time he performs in my town; and Elvis Costello (also missing any Top 40 winners) fills stadiums; especially when any time one of these beloved cult artists does manage to break into the mainstream, they're immediately rejected by a big chunk of their following for "selling out" (and witness the fate of poor Soul Asylum, who lost their hip underground constituency by landing "Runaway Train" on the Hit Parade, then threw off their new fans with a pair of half-hearted, desultory followup albums, leaving them now banished to limbo wherever bands go when they're neither hip, respected, or popular).
But leaving aside all the facets of that discussion, in Jason and the Scorcher's case, it does matter. Because "making it" has been their intent from Day One. And while countless followers --- The Supersuckers, Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, The Bottle Rockets, and, rarely mentioned but still true, Social Distortion (contemporaries of The Scorchers, but don't tell me their rocked-up covers of "Ring Of Fire" and "Makin' Believe" aren't pages from The Scorchers' songbook) have managed to carve a nice niche for themselves, Jason and the Scorchers seem relegated forever to "oh yeah, them" status. Jason and the Scorchers always meant to be the Next Big Thing.
Could be a lot of reasons, I suppose. In one sense, they're probably their own worst enemies: the uninspired riff-rockers that fill up most of Clear Impetuous Morning aren't likely to sway many alt.country fans. Their demented stage show gets them laughed at in this day of "serious" musicians (Ha! See more on this above). One look at Jason's nutty cowpoke duds on The Essential Jason and the Scorchers caused one of my alt.country-loving pals to write them off forever.
Still, I hope it works for them, mainly for purely selfish reasons. I love `em despite their recent failings, they're still one of my favorite bands, and I want them to go on being Jason and the Scorchers, and making music, and hopefully, one day, fulfilling the potential of their early releases. I can't imagine them ever actually cracking the Top 40, but then again stranger things have happened. If not, I hope they're determined enough to keep going. Keep rolling on, Scorchers and dammit isn't it time you played the Bay Area again?
Reckless Country Soul (Praxis, 1982) has been reissued on Mammoth and is essential. Fervor and Lost and Found have been reissued by EMI as The Essential Jason and the Scorchers, Vol. 1 and also as Both Sides Of the Line, though I've heard both of these are now out of print. Still Standing was intended for The Essential Jason and the Scorchers Vol. 2, which never appeared. Otherwise, it's out of print. So, to the best of my knowledge, is Thunder and Fire.
A Blazing Grace, Clear Impetuous Morning and Midnight Roads and Stages Seen are all available from Mammoth. So is a live video for Midnight Roads that includes material not found on the album.
There are a large number of rarities, including great versions of Neil Young's "Are You Ready For the Country, " "Honky Tonk Blues, " "Polk Salad Annie," "Route 66" and an amazing take on the old Kenny Rogers atrocity "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town." Hopefully they'll collect all of these one day.
Jason's 1992 solo album, One Foot in the Honky Tonk is also out of print.
The Official Jason and the Scorchers Page
The Unofficial Jason and the Scorchers Page
Donald Derrick maintains the rcsoup mailing list, and has a Jason and the Scorchers site
Jason and the Scorchers' current label, Mammoth
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