There's been no coasting for Jason & the Scorchers. Not recently, not in their heady early '80s days — not ever. Their music stirred volatile reactions, both loving and loathing, right out of the gate. They were, after all, running country music through the punk rock ringer — and daring to mean it — in the land where straight-up country was king and punk was suspect at best.
Through the 1980s, the Scorchers' Rolling Stone-level buzz built and built before going bust. During the 1990s, they regrouped and threw themselves into an inspired second run. By the early 2000s, they'd lost half of their original members. Bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Perry Baggs were gone. Only guitarist Warner E. Hodges and frontman Jason Ringenberg remained. Except for a very occasional Scorchers show, that, it seemed, would be that.
Thankfully, it wasn't. They've made a new album, Halcyon Times, brimming with their first new material in a decade and a half, and it sounds truly vital. As Ringenberg explains, he was busy with his gig as the kids' entertainer Farmer Jason, but there's more to it than that: "I think the basic reason why I didn't feel driven to do the Scorchers all those years was because I felt like we had [told] our story. I felt like we had done our best work. I didn't want us to do what almost everyone does when they come back with these records, and everyone sort of wishes they wouldn't have. I just did not want that to happen. I didn't think we had it in us to do this kind of record. I was definitely wrong."
Unlike, say, Aerosmith, the Scorchers had no potential multi-million-dollar arena tours riding on their decision to give it another go. (Considering that their live shows are a thing of legend — featuring Hodges, the whirling dervish attacking razor wire riffs, and Ringenberg, an absolute livewire of a singer — perhaps they should.)
It didn't hurt the band-reviving cause, though, that plenty of people still seemed excited to hear them play live. Convincing proof came in the form of two consecutive sold-out shows at Exit/In to benefit Baggs — who suffers from serious health problems — a well-received European tour and an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. And they once again became a full-fledged quartet with the addition of Swedish drummer Pontus Snibb and bassist Al Collins.
"A really important aspect," says Ringenberg, "was finally getting new guys to replace Jeff Johnson and Perry Baggs — that's really hard to do."
With a band as visceral and commercially thwarted as the Scorchers, decisions to play or not to play come down to gut feelings. "We're not out to impress people or make a name for ourselves or re-energize our career, quote unquote," Ringenberg says. "[I]t's just the pure joy of taking the stages with this great band — it's just a wonderful band — and just rockin' people's socks off."
Rarely has a frontman had as much faith in his revamped band as Ringenberg does in the Scorchers of 2010. He says of their decidedly non-local new drummer, "We're out on tour and we're in America and we flew the guy over. It's a lot cheaper to get somebody out of Nashville, I'm telling you. ... I think the band is so good now with Pontus and Al in the rhythm section, I want America to see it." (America will also find that the Scorchers are playing two-hour-plus shows, blazing through material from every era of their career.)
"Of course," Ringenberg adds, "Warner's playing better than he ever has in his life. He's playing brilliantly."
Halcyon Times may be an independent album, but it is, in some ways, less of an independent effort than any of those the Scorchers ever made for major labels. The songs — more attuned to blue-collar realities than ever and, for the first time, looking back on how much life's changed — were written with a small army of likeminded co-writers. Ringenberg rattles off a list of them: "Dan Baird, Ginger from The Wildhearts, Tommy Womack, Rich Fagan, Arty Hill, and then all the band wrote. And [a lot of] those guys I just mentioned were real fans of the band when they were growing up and coming of age. ... [T]hey were writing with the band that helped get them into music. Yeah, they're reflecting too, I guess."
The funding of the album was also a group effort. "We had fans that actually paid money to sit in on the sessions," says Ringenberg. Having a few extra people around didn't cramp their style: "Let's face it — I mean, me and Warner especially, we're live guys. We're performers. You get one person and we're gonna perform for them. That's our nature."
There is, however, another statement about the nature of the band that Ringenberg gladly backs away from: "Well, I know one thing I'll never say with the Scorchers again is that this is definitely the last one. ... I may be 94 years old, I will not say, 'Yeah, that was our last record.' "
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