LEXINGTON, Ky. — There is a blast of white-hot cowpunk fire at the onset of 2010’s “Halcyon Times,” Jason and the Scorchers’ first album of new music in 12 years, that does more than merely announce the re-arrival of the veteran Nashville band.
Against an almost atomic country groove — one that reflects less the generic genre hybrid known as “country rock” in favor of high-octane hoedown music as played by, say, The Ramones — frontman/founder Jason Ringenberg spins the yarn of a rural misfit that plays right to the renegade spirit that has modestly been the Scorchers’ musical base for nearly 30 years.
The album-opening “Moonshine Guy” outlines a protagonist who is a “three-legged mule in a one-horse town” living “a life that plays like a country song that you never heard on the radio.”
“We were at our publisher’s office in Nashville, looking out over Music Row,” Ringenberg said about how the tune came together. “All these people were driving by in their expensive cars and designer suits. I kept thinking about how Nashville was built on blue-collar country music but has changed so dramatically into something quite different.
“So we crafted this character called the Moonshine Guy who is so unrepentant and hates the country music that gets played on the radio but, of course, loves real country music.”
Like so much of the music Jason and the Scorchers have created over the years, the song has the kind of narrative country soul, freewheeling attitude and homemade hillbilly lyricism that Nashville all but abandoned years ago.
Of course, the songs of Jason and the Scorchers have always been served with a rockier fortitude than traditional or contemporary country. The story lines might reflect Ernest Tubb, but the twang is heartily turbo-charged. Hey, the music is not termed cowpunk for nothing.
“Sure, I wished we had more commercial success than we did,” said Scorchers guitarist and co-founder Warner E. Hodges. “But I dig the fact that we’re now some 29 years deep as a band and can still be viewed as valid. People still hear the records, still find the songs to be influential and, basically, still understand where we’re coming from.”
The first performance to feature the long-running Scorchers lineup of Ringenberg, Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Perry Baggs was New Year’s Eve 1981.
“We played in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at this little club called K.O. Jams,” Hodges said. “It was actually pretty cool. Nobody knew the band, obviously. But Jeff, Perry and I had played around the area in various punk bands. Jason had done two gigs previously. At the first, he opened for this little Georgia band called R.E.M. At the other, he opened for this rock ‘n’ roll legend people know as Carl Perkins.
“So it was a fun night. It was a little bit crazy, but any Scorchers show that’s worth a damn always is.”
For many, the calling card of Jason and the Scorchers came in 1984, at the beginning stages of a national country roots and rock movement, with the second edition of an EP disc called “Fervor.” It boasted five Ringenberg originals and a raucous country outburst (“I Can’t Help Myself”) by the late Louisville songsmith Tim Krekel. But the leadoff tune told the whole story of the Scorchers: a punk-charged, honky-tonk-infused revision of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie.”
“These days, to hear that our music is an inspiration for younger bands is always an honor,” Ringenberg said. “It makes me think back to the days when I got to meet some of my heroes, like Bob Dylan. Those were big, big moments for me. To think that might be happening now in the other direction for newer bands is quite an honor.”
The Scorchers’ version of “Absolutely Sweet Marie” also began something of a tradition for the band: opening its albums with collar-grabbing tunes that immediately unleash the full, playful ferocity of its rocking country sound. The tradition carried through tunes like “Golden Ball and Chain” (the gospel-tinged self-help sendup that opened the 1986 album “Still Standing”) and the spry-spirited “Cry By Night Operator” and “Self-Sabotage” (which opened the ‘90s comeback records “A Blazing Grace” and “Clear Impetuous Morning,” respectively) right up through “Moonshine Guy.”
ESSENTIAL JASON AND THE SCORCHERS
The five finest albums:
—“Reckless Country Soul” (1982): The scrappy, country-punk EP disc that started it all. It was released initially as a fast-burning four-song album, then in an extended CD edition at the height of the Scorchers’ ‘90s-era reunion.
—“Fervor” (1983): Initially an EP of mostly Ringenberg originals highlighted by the social country yarn “Help There’s a Fire.” The addition of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” in the 1984 expanded edition helped define the Scorchers’ blooming cowpunk drive.
—“Lost and Found” (1985): The first full-length Scorchers album. All four members shared songwriting duties, but the Ringenberg originals “Shop It Around” and “Broken Whiskey Glass” best enforced the jovial country bravado.
—“Still Standing” (1986): A slicker record, perhaps, but one that raised the caliber of the band’s songwriting, from the sage-like “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait” to the Hank Williams-meets-The Clash charge of “Shotgun Blues.”
—“Halcyon Times” (2010): The sound of the reconstituted Scorchers with a new rhythm section but the same blend of hollering honky-tonk (“Moonshine Guy,” “Mona Lee”) and regal country reflection (“Mother of Greed,” “Beat on the Mountain”).
The Scorchers’ five greatest recorded cover songs:
—“Absolutely Sweet Marie” (1984): In many ways, the cover classic that lit the flame for the Scorchers. It transformed a quietly pensive Bob Dylan meditation from his “Blonde on Blonde” days into a blast of jubilant cowpunk cheer.
—“Are You Ready for the Country” (1985): A “Lost and Found”-era cover of the Neil Young gem highlighted by Hodges’ hearty guitar crunch and a yodeling wail by Ringenberg that would do Jimmie Rogers (and, probably, Young) proud.
—“19th Nervous Breakdown” (1986): A faithful retelling of the Rolling Stones classic, right down to its hook-heavy chorus. Sounds sort of like Keith Richards taking a trip to mid-‘80s Nashville but with Ringenberg still the ringleader.
—“Route 66” (1986): Hodges gives this Bobby Troup pop-swing relic a Chuck Berry makeover in this fun outtake from the “Still Standing” sessions. It finally surfaced as a bonus track on the album’s domestic CD debut in 2002.
—“Take Me Home Country Roads” (1995): A revved-up reading of the John Denver classic from the Scorchers’ “A Blazing Grace” album, this takes the lyrical corners at a mighty speed without sacrificing the tune’s homesick urgency.
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