The coolest lead singer in the world

OK, all you alt-country enthusiasts, let’s take a little trip back through time — before Wilco or Son Volt, before Uncle Tupelo, before the Beat Farmers or Dwight Yoakum or Steve Earle or the Long Ryders or Lone Justice.

Let’s go back to the summer of 1982, when the closest thing to any sort of high-energy roots music would have been X or the Blasters or the Gun Club, or even Nebraska, that murky little album Springsteen had just put out.

That year, a little known Nashville act called Jason and the Scorchers released Reckless Country Soul, their first EP — a strange concoction of hepped-up country (or, maybe, twanged-down late-’70s punk), nobody really knew which. The only category that seemed even vaguely applicable to such a band was “cowpunk.”

So Jason and the Scorchers were cowpunk. So what? But remember — slapping on our ethnomusicologist’s hat, now — most of us had yet to put three and three together, had yet to realize that the 1-4-5 chordage of punk rock had more than a little in common with that seemingly bloodless, clip-clopping music of our grandparents. And to make matters worse, in 1982, when the Scorchers made their grand entrance, country music was in its post-Urban Cowboy decline, making country more unhip than ever.

“Hell, we didn’t care,” lead singer Jason Ringenberg remembers from a Cincinnati pay phone, while waiting for a sound check. “We just wanted to play music.”

And that’s what they did, opening sometimes for nervy college rockers like the Talking Heads, and other times for old-school stalwarts like Carl Perkins. Featuring Ringenberg’s Iggy Pop-meets-Hank Williams frontman antics and Warren Hodges’ Randy Rhoads-meets-Don Rich freewheeling guitar mettle, the Scorchers burned a schizophrenic swath through two more acclaimed albums — the mighty Fervor (EMI, 1984) and Lost and Found (EMI, 1985) — elbowing their way into the synth-pop badlands of the mid-’80s.

Then the bottom fell out. After years of lackluster album sales, band tensions, and the burdens of an ever-worsening music scene, the Scorchers decided to call it a day. “I didn’t know how we could try any harder and be any less successful,” guitarist Hodges has said of that time. “I seriously didn’t know how we could put any more effort into it for so little return. We just couldn’t play the game anymore.” As the ’90s rolled in, Hodges was working in L.A.’s video industry, while Ringenberg clung precariously to a solo-album deal with Capitol/Nashville.

Of course, the times they do a-change: Grunge hit — and, suddenly, sincere, challenging, loud music was back in vogue, and a little-known swirling eddy of the music world called alternative country reared its purty little head. (And anyone who still denies that Kurt Cobain had a drawl in his voice just isn’t listening hard enough.)

When asked about the music industry’s change of heart, Ringenberg says simply, “Sure, we felt vindicated. Suddenly, we weren’t the only ones who wanted to do this type of thing. It made us feel good.” After a regroup, the Scorchers released 1995’s A Blazing Grace (Mammoth), a comeback of sorts, which got the ball rolling. But it was 1996’s Clear Impetuous Morning (Mammoth) which showed that Jason and the Scorchers were still full of life. As melodic and thoughtful as it was pugnacious, the CD moved the Scorchers into a new era of maturity: Narrative songs, songs of hope and determination, even a duet — with Emmylou Harris, no less — helped establish the Scorchers as living on more than just spirit. They were brimming with energy, as vital and important as any new band on the scene today.

“And seriously, we’re enjoying it now more than ever,” Ringenberg confirms during our phone conversation. “Last night, we played some small town in Ohio — it looked like a place out of a Buddy Holly movie — and between sets, I went outside, and the moon was out and the corn was blowing in the breeze and I thought, man, this is heaven. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”

With drummer/honorary frontman Perry Baggs behind the kit and new bassist Kenny Ames keeping the bottom end steady, Ringenberg knows that not many bands are allowed such firm rock ‘n’ roll absolution. He’s a man who’s grateful for many things: His 7-month-old daughter, his band’s astonishing new live album and video (Midnight Roads and Stages Seen (Mammoth)), and the fact that his dharma — playing country music at insane speeds for crowds of people — just happens to be a hell of a lot of fun.

When our conversation finally winds to a close, I have to ask which label he thinks works best for his band — cowpunk, country punk, punkabilly, insurgent country?

Ringenberg pauses. You can almost hear a grin light up his face. “Well, how about this?” he asks. “You can call us ‘The Band With The Coolest Lead Singer in The World.'”

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