There is a blast of white-hot cowpunk fire at the onset of Halcyon Times, Jason and the Scorchers' first album of new music in 12 years, that does more than merely announce the re-arrival of the veteran Nashville band.
Against an almost atomic country groove — one that reflects less the generic genre hybrid known as "country rock" in favor of high-octane hoedown music as played by, say, The Ramones — frontman/founder Jason Ringenberg spins the yarn of a rural misfit that plays right to the renegade spirit that has modestly been the Scorchers' musical base for nearly 30 years.
The album-opening Moonshine Guy outlines a protagonist who is a "three-legged mule in a one-horse town" living "a life that plays like a country song that you never heard on the radio."
"We were at our publisher's office in Nashville, looking out over Music Row," Ringenberg said about how the tune came together. "All these people were driving by in their expensive cars and designer suits. I kept thinking about how Nashville was built on blue-collar country music but has changed so dramatically into something quite different.
"So we crafted this character called the Moonshine Guy who is so unrepentant and hates the country music that gets played on the radio but, of course, loves real country music."
Like so much of the music Jason and the Scorchers have created over the years, the song has the kind of narrative country soul, freewheeling attitude and homemade hillbilly lyricism that Nashville all but abandoned years ago.
Of course, the songs of Jason and the Scorchers have always been served with a rockier fortitude than traditional or contemporary country. The story lines might reflect Ernest Tubb, but the twang is heartily turbo-charged. Hey, the music is not termed cowpunk for nothing.
"Sure, I wished we had more commercial success than we did," said Scorchers guitarist and co-founder Warner E. Hodges. "But I dig the fact that we're now some 29 years deep as a band and can still be viewed as valid. People still hear the records, still find the songs to be influential and, basically, still understand where we're coming from."
New Year's band
Jason and the Scorchers' return to Lexington on Friday night as headliner for New Year's Eve activities at Buster's Billiards and Backroom is more than an end-of-the-year party for the band. It's also an anniversary. The first performance to feature the long-running Scorchers lineup of Ringenberg, Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Perry Baggs was New Year's Eve 1981.
"We played in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at this little club called K.O. Jams," Hodges said. "It was actually pretty cool. Nobody knew the band, obviously. But Jeff, Perry and I had played around the area in various punk bands. Jason had done two gigs previously. At the first, he opened for this little Georgia band called R.E.M. At the other, he opened for this rock 'n' roll legend people know as Carl Perkins.
"So it was a fun night. It was a little bit crazy, but any Scorchers show that's worth a damn always is."
For many, the calling card of Jason and the Scorchers came in 1984, at the beginning stages of a national country roots and rock movement, with the second edition of an EP disc called Fervor. It boasted five Ringenberg originals and a raucous country outburst (I Can't Help Myself) by the late Louisville songsmith Tim Krekel. But the leadoff tune told the whole story of the Scorchers: a punk-charged, honky-tonk-infused revision of Bob Dylan's Absolutely Sweet Marie.
"These days, to hear that our music is an inspiration for younger bands is always an honor," Ringenberg said. "It makes me think back to the days when I got to meet some of my heroes, like Bob Dylan. Those were big, big moments for me. To think that might be happening now in the other direction for newer bands is quite an honor."
The Scorchers' version of Absolutely Sweet Marie also began something of a tradition for the band: opening its albums with collar-grabbing tunes that immediately unleash the full, playful ferocity of its rocking country sound. The tradition carried through tunes like Golden Ball and Chain (the gospel-tinged self-help sendup that opened the 1986 album Still Standing) and the spry-spirited Cry By Night Operator and Self-Sabotage (which opened the '90s comeback records A Blazing Grace and Clear Impetuous Morning, respectively) right up through Moonshine Guy.
"That's kind of a reflection of how we open our live shows: hard and fast," Hodges said. "Jason has always been big on just slapping folks in the face right out of the box when we hit the stage."
The new Scorchers
Jason and the Scorchers, as many fans came to know them, fell apart as the '80s concluded but were back in action by the mid-'90s with their lineup intact. Then, before the release of the fine 1998 live album Midnight Roads and Stages Seen, the wheels came off seemingly for good. Johnson departed, reportedly on good terms, in 1996. Mounting health problems for Baggs stemming from diabetes forced him to leave in 2002. By that point, the Scorchers were essentially dormant.
"It was pretty difficult after Jeff left, but we sort of gamely went on," Ringenberg said. "But when Perry left, it was impossible. We did a few shows, but there was no band to speak of. Replacing Perry was really hard."
"It wasn't just that Perry was a great drummer," Hodges said. "He was also a strong background vocalist who contributed a few songs to the records."
So pulling together for Halcyon Times meant recruiting a new rhythm section — bassist Al Collins and Swedish drummer Pontus Snibb — and a host of longtime friends, including former Georgia Satellites chieftain Dan Baird (Hodges plays in Baird's newest band, Homemade Sin, in addition to Scorchers duties), veteran songsmith Tommy Womack and the frontman of the British band Wildhearts, known simply as Ginger. Even Baggs returned to the fold long enough to add harmony vocals to five of the album's 14 songs.
Together they constructed a vital cowpunk drive that is faithful to Scorchers tradition. But it is the still-combustible chemistry between Ringenberg and Hodges that fuels Halcyon Times and new readings of decades-old Scorchers rockers.
"Warner is in a place that I don't think anybody has ever been in terms of his guitar work," Ringenberg said. "It's a very strange place where country-roots music meets hillbilly music, punk rock and classic rock 'n' roll. I don't think anybody will ever master that sound as well as Warner has."
"I've watched Jason beat it, beat it and beat it for 29 years," Hodges said. "He practically kills himself trying to put on a good show for the people. He gives 150 percent every night he's out there. Dan Baird is one of those guys. Iggy Pop is one of those guys. And you better believe Jason is, too."