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Cowpunk Deluxe

Jason and the Scorchers come to Houston for what could be their last gig ever

The phone call catches Jason Ringenberg on the cordless hanging out with his daughters on his farm. It's an appropriate setting for the founding father of cowpunk, a movement that helped birth today's alt-country scene -- except Ringenberg, who was born and raised on an Illinois hog farm, now raises chickens, not cows. One of his daughters hasn't quite gotten the hang of chicken care.

"Hold on a second," he tells the caller. Then he turns to his youngest girl. "Camille, honey, not by the neck. That's it."

"She was carrying a chicken by the neck," he explains. Not good. One can't help but imagine that at a few points in his career as the front man of Jason and the Scorchers, Ringenberg must have felt like that chicken. When the group erupted out of Nashville in the early 1980s, they had grand ambitions: to be one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever and to rouse Music City from its conservatism and complacency. On any given night they could be the former, and every night they did the latter.

Jason Ringenberg: The 1980s' answer to Gram Parsons.
Jason Ringenberg: The 1980s' answer to Gram Parsons.

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But as the Scorchers chased those goals with a determined fervor, to borrow the title of their finest early EP, they encountered just about every typical band pitfall: bankruptcy, drug problems and a yawning gap between critical acclaim and mass success. "We would be on MTV, and the guy working at the gas station was making more money," Ringenberg recalls of the Scorchers' mid-'80s days.

By 1990, the Scorchers had burned out. But four years later original bassist Jeff Johnson, hitherto the band's biggest screwup, had cleaned up his act and persuaded his bandmates to reunite. Hence the Scorchers made it to the two-decade mark last year, and since they missed Houston and Austin on their 20th-anniversary tour, the group is now making a short run through Texas.

But this Satellite show will be the last gig on what could be the band's final tour. To Ringenberg's surprise, longtime drummer Perry Baggs recently quit the group. "We don't know anything other than we're going to do the shows we have booked," Ringenberg states. "But we're not certain what's next. We may go on, and go on stronger. We may call it quits. Who knows?"

Whatever happens, Ringenberg can point to a proud legacy. The Scorchers redefined the "too rock for country, too country for rock" cliché, and made Nashville and American music history along the way. Through its fusion of punk energy and country soul, the band proved itself as vital to its generation as Gram Parsons had been to his. No more would country-rock be solely the preserve of bad Eagles impersonators, which by then included the Eagles themselves. "The Scorchers were and maybe still are one of the best in the world at a certain style of music," says Ringenberg. "The band is a legend, and the band is completely unique. There's no one else like them -- there never was, and there never will be."

What makes these Texas Scorchers appearances a bit odd is the fact that the latest release from the Scorchers camp is not a band record. Instead it's Ringenberg's second solo album, All Over Creation. Well, it's not exactly a solo album, either, as it finds him paired with contemporary Steve Earle and acolytes like Todd Snider, BR5-49, Lambchop and Tommy Womack.

For all the logistics involved, All Over Creation came about spontaneously. "There was no plan," Ringenberg explains. "I was doing some BR5-49 dates, and we were jamming on that Loretta [Lynn] song" -- "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)" -- "and I just thought, 'Man, I should record this with them.' They were in the studio the next week and I snuck in and did a song, and it just took off from there. Pretty soon I was thinking I would just do a whole record like this. It was very spontaneous, very loose. Whoever was around and available -- there was no list."

But as much as the album came from inspiration, Jason Ringenberg the solo artist -- as opposed to the Scorchers front man -- now swears equally by perspiration. Ringenberg manages and books himself and is the CEO of his own label, Courageous Chicken Records. "There is Jason the artist, who has always been there," he says. "And [now] there's Jason the businessman. And the businessman is actually pretty ruthless and is going to make what's out there for me to make."

Artist Jason is as modest as business Jason is cutthroat. "I'm just a good songwriter with some good songs who plays with some energy and some entertainment. That's fine," he says. "And if people take something home from that, that's great." Among the items to take home, he hopes a CD or ten will be among them. "I joke how once that show ends, I change from Jason the godfather of alt-country into Jason the used car salesman," he chuckles.

In contrast to his solo career, Ringenberg takes his band's tours at face value. "We had a pretty ambitious run in the '90s," he says. "But these days, 'ambitious' is not a word to use with the band. I think we're just happy with what happens and whatever falls our way."

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