Heavenly Fire

"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."

The key to appreciating the new Jason and the Scorchers is to remember that the band has been reborn, not remade. Sure, Hodges' guitar will set your ears on fire just like in the old days, and a lot of the songs involve the country themes of drinking and sin, but the band has a whole new attitude. Says Ringenberg, "It couldn't feel more different than before, any way you look at it. Our priorities are completely different -- now we're only worried about rocking the house and writing great songs. Everything else is irrelevant."

The Scorchers seem to have found their center by renouncing the fierce ambition that possessed the band throughout the '80s and eventually drove the members apart. Giving up the dream of making big bucks by signing to a major label was a big part of that. Ringenberg explains that "being on an independent label is like guerrilla warfare -- more freedom to just get out and play, and not have to worry about how we look or what we might say. No rules, just rocking. It's a lot more fun than being on a major. We don't have to get embarrassed about things the label makes us do. Like when EMI made us change our name."

Ringenberg goes on to note that in the half-decade that the band's been on hiatus, the entire music industry has changed for the better. He sees a lot more independent labels, or, more specifically, more successful independent labels. Throughout the '80s, independent labels existed on the fringe of the industry; to some, it looked like their main purpose was to make jobs of the major labels A&R guys' easier. But in the '90s they've emerged as potent commercial and artistic forces. Performers have started seeking the minors out, as have CD buyers, who will trust a particular label to put out only good music. Bands such as Jason and the Scorchers, who signed with the hot Mammoth Records out of North Carolina, get the benefit of that trend.

"When we first started," Ringenberg recalls, "we were grouped with Rank and File and Lone Justice. In the mid- to late '80s, we were labeled with the 'American Rock' tag, along with John Mellencamp, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, the Georgia Satellites, the Kentucky Headhunters. Now, they seem to think we're traditionalists, and they put us in a movement with the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo." Attentive readers will notice that if you put aside Mellencamp, and one or two singles from the Thunderbirds and the Satellites, you aren't left with much in the way of major label success stories. It's ironic that the style of music regarded as most authentic -- whatever the hell that means -- or American doesn't attract the mass audience for which the majors are looking.

This doesn't seem to bother the Scorchers in the least. An informed source in Chicago tells me they tore the roof off a club there a few weeks ago. Rave notices from across the U.S. suggest that wasn't anything out of the ordinary for Ringenberg and company. If form holds, Houston will be in for a treat.

"Houston is one of our best towns for live shows," says Ringenberg. "It didn't start out that way -- our first few shows there were pretty dead, we were barely tolerated. In the mid-'80s, though, people started coming out, and it's just been getting better and crazier ever since.

"At the show, we'll play a mix of the new stuff and some of the old stuff, like 'Harvest Moon' and 'Broken Whiskey Glass,' which is probably our favorite song to play live. That song just gets going. We usually throw in some surprise covers, sometimes some stuff we haven't played as a band in 15 years, like when we opened the set with 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' a couple of weeks

Did you play it slow or fast?
"Slow and fast."
So tell us a joke.

"Keith Richards finally gets around to dying, and he's up at the Gates of Heaven, and, Keith being Keith, they turn him around and send him down to Hell. Jimi Hendrix meets him at the door, hands him a guitar, and says, 'Hurry up, we're about to start.' Jimi takes him to a big room, lots of food, lots of beautiful women. Brian Jones is there, tuning his guitar, Jaco Pastorius is stretching his fingers doing runs on his bass, and Sid Vicious is still trying to figure out how in the hell to play the bass. Elvis is there, Gene Vincent. Out of nowhere, Karen Carpenter walks in, sits at the drums, picks up her sticks, starts to count off: 'Okay, 'On Top of the World' on four....'"

Jason and the Scorchers play at 10 p.m. Thursday, April 20 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Tickets $8. Call 869-COOL for info.

The key to appreciating the new Scorchers is to remember that the band has been reborn, not remade.

The Scorchers seem to have found their center by renouncing the fierce ambition that possessed them throughout the '80s.


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