Jason and the Scorchers may be nearing middle age, but they'll still be the wildest act yet to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association. (Theirs, not surprisingly, will be given in the "Performance" category.) And on that occasion, they'll play together—drummer Perry Baggs' health permitting—with their original lineup for the first time in over a decade.
"In typical Scorchers fashion—and I don't know how people will take this—we're not going to even rehearse," says frontman Jason Ringenberg. "The '80s vintage Jason and the Scorchers hardly ever rehearsed. I don't even think we really knew what the word was."
Guitarist Warner Hodges will probably whirl maniacally and flip his guitar over his shoulder while Ringenberg yowls and stalks the stage, hallmarks of the electrified performance style they forged in their 20s. And all that will serve as a vivid reminder that they shook up audiences not just by mixing two styles of music treated more or less like oil and water at the time—hard-edged rock and country—but also by doing it with enough raw energy and youthful exuberance to throw sparks.
When the Scorchers released Fervor, Lost and Found and Still Standing during their 1980s heyday, they had a sound that was either too heavy on the shredding or too hillbilly, depending on who you asked, and—despite being on a major label—they lacked a fitting industry home. The Americana Music Association was still more than a decade away.
Ringenberg can't clearly recall the band's last major award: "I guess the closest thing before that would have been at the Nashville Music Association Awards we got Band of the Decade or something at the end of the '80s." (The rumor spread that the Scorchers had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame—not true—but they do have an exhibit there.)
When the band played a few dates in Europe this summer—without Baggs and original bassist Jeff Johnson—audience response to news of the AMA award was animated. "I think a lot of people are more frustrated about the band's lack of commercial or industry recognition than we were," Ringenberg says. "I think a lot of our fans took it more personally than we probably did. They [would say], 'We were right. You guys were good.' "
But in a genre enriched by enduring and influential "heritage artists" (Levon Helm kicks off the festivities with his second Ramble at the Ryman, and Glen Campbell is the centerpiece of Sin City's Starspangled Rodeo tribute) and whole generations of acts who blend rock and country, young groundbreakers like the Scorchers only come around so often these days. And—to be fair—youth appeal hasn't necessarily been the Americana Music Festival and Conference's strongest suit in the past.
But AMA board member (and co-owner of Grimey's New and Pre-loved Music) Doyle Davis was already envisioning indie singer-songwriters as potential new blood for the festival last year. And he's not alone. There are signs that things are starting to change a little. "I can tell you for sure that on that [showcase] committee—which I was a member—there were several like-minded people with that in mind," says Davis. "We had a wish list of acts that we wanted to invite."
Indie-minded Los Angeles- and Indianapolis-based music blogs Aquarium Drunkard and My Old Kentucky Blog are co-sponsoring a showcase at The Basement with acts like Murfreesboro's sassy country-punk trio Those Darlins, Southern rocker Jason Isbell and New York's acoustic thrashers O'Death. Indie-folk singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim opens for the Scorchers at Mercy Lounge.
That's in no small part because of a new addition to the AMA's board of directors—John Turner, head of marketing and new media at Thirty Tigers. "I think they elected me because of my role in new media marketing for the Avett Brothers," he says. "They were just kind of like, 'He's young, he's on the Internet and he's dealing with a cool band.' "
Roots audiences are used to the Scorchers and alt-country early birds like Uncle Tupelo. So it's a taller order for a band today to deliver the kind of jolt that the Scorchers did almost 30 years ago with their then-subversive hybrid sound and look. "In those days—this is God's honest truth as I live and breathe—I really was serious when I wore that stuff," he says. "I didn't feel like I was making fun of anybody. I'm sure a lot of people thought I looked completely ridiculous, but I thought I looked really cool. It just doesn't seem [strange] now for anybody in any genre of music to throw on a cowboy hat or some sort of fringe-y kind of rhinestone-y shirt."
But Those Darlins—with their combination of girlish, Carter Sisters simplicity, ragged playing and spitfire attitude—carry on the spirit of the Scorchers at least in some small way. Songs like "The Whole Damn Thing" (as in drunkenly devouring a whole chicken) and "Snaggletooth Mama" might be less fun if the Darlins weren't actually from Kentucky, Virginia and South Carolina and hadn't actually experienced some of the backwoods escapades they sing about. But as it is, the songs are an uncomplicated, danceable good time.
Other acts showcasing—like the Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band and Folk Uke—lace left-of-center rewrites of tradition with humor or irony. The Big Damn Band is a family trio that scratches out a jolly, punkish offshoot of pre-war blues on bottleneck guitar, washboard and drums, with Peyton hollering like Fred Schneider on meth about his mother's cooking, the high price of heath insurance and spotting someone's cousin on the TV show Cops.
Folk Uke—a hilariously deadpan, three-chord-favoring folk duo comprised of Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie (daughters of Willie and Arlo, no less)—devote their sweet-sounding and not-overly-rehearsed harmonies to very un-sweet folk spoofs—"Shit Makes the Flowers Grow" and "Motherfucker Got Fucked Up" are two examples from their 2005 EP, which features both of their dads.
In a genre as hyper-conscious of acknowledging ties to musical traditions as Americana, attention is frequently—and rightfully—devoted to what's come before. And as is true most years, the lineup at any venue on any given night all but guarantees reliably strong roots country and folk songwriters. (Among this year's crop are witty Texan Bruce Robison, folk-groove supergroup Kane Welch Kaplin, reunited ex-Jayhawk bandmates Gary Louris and Mark Olson, the harmony-rich makeshift trio of Kim Richey, Will Kimbrough and Mando Saenz and a back-to-bluegrass Kathy Mattea.) But there are other acts who stick out too.
The Duhks, for one, have spent four albums tinkering with what's possible for an acoustic-based band (now one with a full-fledged drummer). They're as likely to launch into Afro-Cuban polyrhythms as they are anything more straight-ahead and bluegrass-influenced, and the nimbleness of their playing—plus the fact that new vocalist Sarah Dugas lands just on the jazz side of combustible R&B voices like Nikka Costa and Joss Stone—means there are formidable grooves holding it all together.
Ben Sollee—a member of another global-minded acoustic group, the Sparrow Quartet—works modest miracles with his Sam Cooke-meets-baroque instincts and innovative cello-playing. (Besides bowing, he plucks it like an upright bass and finger-picks it like a guitar.) Without a typical rhythm section weighing him down (he prefers accompaniment like the vibes instead), he turns out folk-soul that feels weightless and free, but still plenty rhythmic.
Patrick Sweany is one of the few on the bill this year with both feet squarely planted in R&B. (Gospel-soul powerhouse Mike Farris is another.) Sweany's singing, songwriting and guitar playing have the elemental heat of '60s R&B, with a handful of the Black Keys' hazy, hypnotic unison guitar-vocal lines thrown in. (He recorded with the Keys' Dan Auerbach last year.)
Even if The Boxmasters weren't a band comprised of Billy Bob Thornton and some other less famous, mod-dressing guys, they'd still be onto something with their British Invasion rock-meets-Bakersfield sound and tough-luck, smart-ass country songs.
Two other standouts are Jim White and Malcolm Holcombe. White's songs often emerge with bizarre twists and blur the line between the real and imagined South beyond recognition. His penchant for playing around with electronics—like Beck did early on—adds to his music's waking-dreamlike qualities. Holcombe, on the other hand, sings his gruff, stripped-bare country-blues songs like a wolf who's ravenous one moment and satisfied the next.
This year's AMA conference also features a couple of first-time forums—Davis' on the resurgence of vinyl LPs and Turner's on popular music blogs (the two aforementioned ones plus Pitchfork Media and Nashville's Out the Other)—that have everything to do with below-30 listeners. "The vinyl format is most popular right now with exactly the generation that everybody is saying is all-digital, all-iPod, all-download," says Davis.
The more multigenerational Americana's annual flagship event becomes, the better for the music's synergy of tradition and reinvention. Witness Campbell's new album—Meet Glen Campbell—extending the right hand of friendship to fans of '90s alt-rock. (His covers of Green Day, Foo Fighters and The Replacements have an almost elegant, string-swathed, folk-rock sheen.) And O'Death happen to take their name from a dark song popularized in recent years by first-generation bluegrass giant Ralph Stanley.
For their part, Ringenberg and his bandmates have already been around long enough to see roots music genealogy—especially their own—rewritten, added to and revised plenty. "First it was psychobilly," he says, "and then country-punk and then cowpunk and then roots rock and then American rock 'n' roll and then hickory-smoked heavy metal. And then alt-country-Americana-retro-roots rock."
To borrow (and bastardize) a phrase currently popular in national politics, you can put lipstick—or a genre title—on a gutsy, tradition-mining band, and they'll still be a gutsy, tradition-mining band. But that lipstick might just turn out to be a good look for them.
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