Before there were Bottle Rockets and an Uncle Tupelo — let alone Mumfords and Avetts — there were the Scorchers. Going back to a moment in the 1980s when tastes of the typical underground music fan ran "anything but country," Jason & the Scorchers were fomenting a cow-punk revolution on college radio alongside such acts as the Bad Livers and the Beat Farmers. To some extent, the University of Kansas was ground zero.
"Our first No. 1 was on KJHK," says singer-guitarist Jason Ringenberg from his Tennessee farm. "The college-radio scene was the first place to give the band some exposure and some attention."
Three decades after the band's formation, a look at the Billboard charts confirms that the rest of the world has caught up with the Scorchers' aesthetic. But at the time, the bristling muscularity of their hotfooted country-billy rave-ups was trailblazing. They established a beachhead with their 1982 EP, Fervor, on which they dragged Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" toward a twangier, Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones sound. The group's '85 full-length debut, Lost & Found, moved things further along. From the holler-and-stomp cover of "Lost Highway" to searing rawkers ("If Money Talks," "White Lies") to the odd honky-tonk ode to the 9-to-5 Everyman ("Still Tied"), it's a triumphant, powerful album — one of the 1980s' finest under-recognized gems.
"Some say it's the best we ever did. It was a special record, no question. Although Fervor got us touring, Lost & Found was the one that solidified us," Ringenberg says. "There was an explosive kind of chemistry."
But they had trouble maintaining their initial momentum. Friction between Ringengberg and guitarist Warner Hodges, the stress of touring and the unsustainable ferocity of their live performances conspired in the band's 1989 breakup, shortly after the release of their third, more hard-rock-oriented LP, Thunder and Fire.
"We had kind of run our circuit. By Thunder and Fire, I think that we had lost some of the specialness of the band. We were tired and worn-out," he says. "Also, the band has always had really big ambitions. It's hard, the constant pressure of trying to live up to those ambitions. I think the high expectations did take their toll."
In 1992, inspired by original bassist Jeff Johnson, the Scorchers reunited, riding dual waves: the commercialization of underground rock and the coalescence of the alt-country scene. "As one of the pioneers, we certainly benefited from the emergence of alt-country as it became a real community and a real genre in the '90s," Ringenberg says. "But once again, it ran out of gas — we ran out of our record deal and out of interest and, really, energy. It went south for a long time this time, over 10 years."
Ringenberg went solo and spent much of the next decade releasing children's albums, but he and Hodges reunited with a new rhythm section for a series of shows in 2008. The freshness and energy of playing out together got their juices flowing again. In 2009, they went into the studio, returning with their finest album in 20 years, Halcyon Times.
It's also probably their most serious album, surveying our culture's growth engine ("Mother of Greed"), faltering fortunes (on the lively, lighthearted "Gettin' Nowhere Fast" and the Southern-rockish forgotten-vets ode, "Land of the Free") and more innocent times ("Days of Wine and Roses," "Golden Days"). Most of all, it cranks up the volume and crunch with an assurance, ease and skill unseen since their first releases.
"The first two records, there was a commonality of purpose in how this band needed to sound and be," Ringenberg says. "Then Warren and I diverged in different directions. One of the reasons I think we came back together was because we found that commonality of purpose again with Halcyon Times. I'll put the writing up next to Lost & Found. A lot of it [is about] kind of small people being swallowed up by much bigger things and fighting through that."
Another new Scorchers album will have to wait. Ringenberg's kids'-music alter ego — Farmer Jason — is now a major-label act with a big release planned for February. But we'll eventually see more releases from the band, Ringenberg says.
"I told the guys I've been singing about dead Confederates for the last 15 years. If you want to make a quiet, spooky, Southern gospel record, you're talking to the wrong guy. I want to rock," he says with a laugh. "We do seem to run in three-record cycles, so we have a couple more records in us for sure."