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"It feels like a minor miracle."
That's how Jason Ringenberg, the Jason of Jason and the Scorchers, describes his band's reunion. Houston fans of high energy, country-tinged rock and roll should thank heaven that the age of minor miracles isn't over; no one's due to be canonized, but the Scorchers are back on the road and bringing their legendary show to town on April 20 in support of their first new album since the '90s began, A Blazing Grace.
The title might be a takeoff of that gospel standby "Amazing Grace," but in fact "a blazing grace" could also describe not only what the Scorchers appeared to be to their early fans, but also the impact they had on music in the early 1980s. The band first got together in 1981 as Jason and the Nashville Scorchers in, as one might surmise, Nashville, and they cut their first album, Reckless Country Soul, a mere five months after Ringenberg had departed from his parents' hog farm in Illinois. They caught the critics' attention a short time later with Fervor, released on the independent Praxis label. The band's sound was (and is) a righteous mix of country twang, punk thrash and Southern Gothic -- you can call it cowpunk, punkabilly or anything else you want, but the band called it rock and roll.
"When we started out, I was listening to a lot of Gram Parsons and reading Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner and other Southern writers," Ringenberg remembers. "I had just moved from Illinois to Nashville, so those writers really defined the Southern experience for me. Sometimes I felt that because my background was so different, I could appreciate them more than Southerners could. I was able to see how they described a whole world, a different way of life. When I write songs, I try to do as good a job as they did at showing a different sense of place."
The band's superb songwriting and reputation for fierce live shows -- built around Warner E. Hodges' hell-bent guitar playing and Ringenberg's no-holds barred vocal attacks on jittery tales of sin and whiskey -- quickly caught the ear of EMI, one of the majors. The Nashville Scorchers signed a multi-album deal, saw EMI release a slightly different version of Fervor in 1984 and lost the "Nashville" in their name. "EMI told us to drop the Nashville," remembers Ringenberg. "At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal, but letting them do that was the dumbest thing I ever did -- I spent the next three years answering the question, 'So why'd you change your name?'"
Losing their geographic appellation and its stylistic implications didn't make the Scorchers a hot commercial property, though. They put out three albums over the next five years -- Lost & Found in 1985, Still Standing in 1986 and Thunder & Fire in 1989 -- but no one other than critics and loyal fans took much note. The gap between the band's ambition and its sales took its toll. "Our focus was on being big and famous," says Ringenberg, "and we didn't take care of the business of being a band." Guitarist Hodges took to the bottle, as did bassist Jeff Johnson, who left the group before the release of Thunder & Fire. In 1989, the band disintegrated.
Johnson, who had been the first to leave, was also the first to have the idea of a reunion. He floated the notion with Ringenberg, Hodges and drummer Perry Baggs, and then started calling promoters and press to gauge the reaction of the world at large. Everyone was enthusiastic, save for the two people who mattered most -- Ringenberg and Hodges. Ringenberg was still pursuing an ill-fated country career, and Hodges, newly sober, didn't want to end up bitter and drunk again.
Johnson's persistence paid off, though, when the singer and the guitarist relented. They exacted the promise that Johnson would handle all the bookings and related groundwork.
"It's not like some promoter or record label came to us and promised us a pile of money," says Ringenberg now. "This whole reunion is internally generated -- the band decided to get back together to see what would happen." So they hit the road, playing their old material, and were astonished at the crowds they drew. They started functioning as a working band again.
"After we got back together and started playing some shows, some songs started coming," says Ringenberg. "'American Legion Party,' 'Cry by Night Operator' -- we just hit a groove on that one, then we approached a label."
Just as the band's reunion was internally driven, the themes for many of Ringenberg's new songs on A Blazing Grace had an internal genesis as well. "My songs have gotten a lot more personal, and a lot of that is from what I've gone through in the last few years," Ringenberg says. "My wife and I got divorced, and I lost custody of my daughter. It sounds trite when you hear other people say it, but that's absolute hell.
"My favorite new song would have to be 'Somewhere Within' -- it really hit something deep inside me. I don't want to sound corny, but that song is so emotional, so autobiographical, that I start getting tears in my eyes every time I hear it."
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