Jason and the Scorchers don’t get their due
Jason and the Scorchers are receiving an award later this week and will perform, probably for the last time ever. (See Jason and The Scorchers get their due in The Tenneseean for details; ego warning: I’m quoted in the article.) The Scorchers are an important, under-recognized band and it should please me, a longtime fan, that they’re getting some attention. Instead, it’s making me angry. They should be getting a lot more than just an award from an organization specializing in the “Americana” radio format. After all, Jason and the Scorchers were one of two bands in the early ’80s that invented the damn form. The awards I want them to receive are gold and platinum records, the audience I want them to have is the arena-sized one they have earned.
I remember in late 1983, Jason Ringenberg, the band’s lead singer balanced himself on a rickety stool in the basement of a now-boarded Philadelphia dive and wished aloud what he wanted his band to sound like. “Like a religious service,” he said wistfully, “only a lot dirtier.”
Then as now, this is not an attitude that brings major labels running, and Jason and the Scorchers were the great lost band of the eighties, maybe the great lost American rock’n’roll band ever, starting great and getting even better with each record, though fewer and fewer people heard them each time around. In the eighties, the music industry was simply not geared to handle an original group like Jason and the Scorchers, a ferocious hard-rock band with a strong grounding in country-and-western. A few years later, the Kentucky Headhunters, a group with similar sources but none of the wildness or fearlessness, found itself among the most-loved bands in Nashville. If any traditional rock’n’roll band in the eighties was ahead of its time, it was Jason and the Scorchers.
The Scorcher’s debut EP, 1982’s Reckless Country Soul, is the sound of Joe Strummer hurling a wrecking ball through the Grand Ol’ Opry. Its standout, “Shot Down Again,” starts with Ringenberg screaming, “Look out London — here come the Scorchers!” Pop-music historians will recognize this as important early evidence of the anti-eighties-hair-bands-from-England backlash.
Fervor, recorded the following year, elaborates the band’s strengths. Drawing from both their country-and-western and rock-and-roll sources, the Scorchers burn a country-rock path such poseurs as the Eagles would never have found even if their dealers had given them detailed directions. Drummer Perry Baggs and bass player Jeff Johnson give Ringenberg’s edgy songs a solid foundation while Warner Hodges slides from delicate lap-steel to dirty guitar-hero styles without allowing either to sound like an afterthought. The record, full of, well, scorching originals and a knockout version of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” had the immediacy of the group’s live show. Although Hodges wasn’t standing at the edge of a stage sucking a cigarette and Ringenberg wasn’t dancing like Ed Norton on meth, Fervor came across just as hard as the group did live.
And, as far as the record industry was concerned, that was it. At first, being signed to a major was good for the Scorchers: it gave a reworked Fervor (the Praxis original didn’t have the Dylan cover) a second chance. But despite terrific record after terrific record and blazing show after blazing show, the band was too direct and unpretentious to thrive commercially.
I know that for many years I made my living as a critic and all I should care about is the quality of the work in question. But Jason and the Scorchers are/were one of America’s greatest rock’n’roll bands and it makes me mad that they didn’t get all they deserved.
(Disclosure: I produced a now-out-of-print Scorchers compilation — there’s a pic above of the cover. I’ll post the liner notes if/when I find ’em — and Ringenberg contributed a cut to The Sandinista Project.)