Still Scorching

Jason Ringenberg embraces his title as alt country's architect.

Jason Ringenberg has lived in or near Nashville since 1981, but he's hardly a member of the city's country-music establishment. "I feel like an outsider in that circle," he says from his farm west of town. "But I feel like the consummate insider in the left-of-center crowd."

Now in his forties, Ringenberg has been called -- for good reason -- the godfather of alternative country, a tag that pleases the singer very much. "I do feel that way," he says. "I'm actually quite proud of that." (Gram Parsons, he is quick to point out, is the movement's true patron saint.)

Ringenberg and his band, the Scorchers, were among the first to bring a hard-rock sensibility to country music, paving the way for such groups as Uncle Tupelo, the Blood Oranges, the Bottle Rockets and Neko Case and her Boyfriends. These days, it's old hat to think of punk and country as two sides of the same coin, but the concept was downright radical in Nashville in the early '80s.

He's a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll: Jason Ringenberg.
He's a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll: Jason Ringenberg.

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With Marty Jones and the Pork Boilin' Poor Boys
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"We did it at a time when something like that could elicit violence from people," Ringenberg says. "And it did. There were plenty of people who wanted to kill us."

When Ringenberg, a farm boy from Illinois who grew up listening to country music and rock and roll, first arrived in Nashville, the city was in its so-called Urban Cowboy phase, and the line between pop and country had all but disappeared. (The 1981 Grammy Award for best country song went to Dolly Parton for her huge crossover hit "9 to 5.")

"But I felt a real latent energy in the town," Ringenberg recalls. "There were a lot of people who wanted to do something different than Music Row country. But at that point, it was rock and roll. They weren't thinking in terms of different country; they were thinking in terms of rock. And into that I stepped, with some country roots. So it was kind of an interesting chemistry. I didn't reject Nashville in its entirety, which most of the punk bands in Nashville did at the time. They thought country was completely stupid. They wanted nothing to do with it. Whereas I could understand it: I understood the roots of it and how cool it was. I just didn't like a certain segment of it."

Just after he got to town, Ringenberg hooked up with a young musician named Jack Emerson -- now co-owner, with Steve Earle, of E-Square Records -- and started playing gigs. "Three weeks later, we did a show opening for Carl Perkins, and then we opened for REM," Ringenberg says. "[Guitarist] Warner Hodges and [bassist] Jeff Johnson saw the band and said, 'We want in on this.' They jumped in, brought in [drummer] Perry Baggs, and by New Year's, we were selling out rooms, and we had a record out in January. It happened really, really fast."

The Scorchers' first record was a four-song, independently produced EP titled Reckless Country Soul. A year later they put out Fervor, a six-song EP that contained a searing version of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and a twangy Ringenberg/Johnson original, "Hot Nights in Georgia." The resulting buzz led to a record deal with EMI, which reissued Fervor and released the band's first full-length disc, Lost & Found, in 1985. (Seventeen years later, it remains the Scorchers' high-water mark.)

"One night we would open for the Circle Jerks in Atlanta," Ringenberg says, "and the next night we would have William Lee Golden [of the Oak Ridge Boys] up on stage singing with us in Nashville. Those kinds of things would happen all the time. We would hang out one night with [Sex Pistols guitarist] Steve Jones and the next night with Rodney Crowell. Those were crazy times."

The Scorchers, always more of a critical than a commercial success, recorded two more albums, including 1986's Still Standing and 1989's Thunder & Fire. Then they went their separate ways -- the result, according to an official biography posted on Ringenberg's Web site (jasonringenberg.com), of "internal disputes, record label complications and substance abuse."

In 1992, Ringenberg -- billing himself simply as "Jason" -- took a stab at mainstream country with a misguided (and little heard) album called One Foot in the Honky Tonk. ("It was a nice place to visit," he said later, "but I didn't really belong in the commercial country world.") Two years later, just as the alt-country movement was gaining steam, the Scorchers reunited and found themselves playing for a new generation of fans. But after releasing several more acclaimed albums, the band more or less called it quits. Shamefully, most of the Scorchers' albums are now out of print. That includes Fervor, Lost & Found, and a wonderful 1992 compilation for Capitol that recently fetched $67 on eBay. The label may be getting the message: This month, it is reissuing Still Standing with several bonus tracks.

Following the Scorchers' unofficial split, Ringenberg, who had always wanted to record an acoustic album, retreated to his five-acre spread, where he lives with his wife, Suzy, and their two daughters, and wrote a batch of songs about family, faith and farm life. "I'd never really been able to get that personal," he says, "because I'd been in a band all my life."

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