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Two decades and still burning 

Jason and the Scorchers stare down the barrel of 20

It was 20 years ago today -- well, actually New Year's Eve 1981 -- when the "official" lineup of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers played its first gig. The performance took place in a tiny bar called KO Jams in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and those in attendance (including this writer) will never forget what they saw. Led by a skinny young man with the energy of a child on Christmas morning and the cocky attitude of the town's biggest redneck, the Scorchers made history by successfully blending the pure emotion of traditional country music with the raw fury of punk rock. It was a cathartic moment in the lives of those in the audience -- and a milestone in contemporary music history.

Now older, wiser and dripping with polite Southern manners, Jason Ringenberg reflects on the band's last two decades, and feels a sense of accomplishment that's surprising in light of the tumultuous road the band has traveled.

"We thought we could change the world, that we were the next Rolling Stones," he laughs. "We did change things, but we didn't make any money from it."

In spite of the Scorchers' inability to capitalize on their notoriety, their impact was unquestionable. "The Scorchers are more legendary than sellable," Ringenberg says. "But we have quite a heritage to reflect on." While some music historians and fans attribute the beginning of the alt-country and/or Americana movement to Uncle Tupelo's early- to mid-'90s run, the roots of the genre run much deeper. In fact, the evolution of the Scorchers can be traced back to the summer of 1981, when Ringenberg moved from the family farm in Illinois to Nashville, intent on creating a new musical hybrid. His background included a heavy classic country influence fueled by his love of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Hank Williams.

Once in Music City, Ringenberg hooked up with local music scenester Jack Emerson, who shared his vision. They formed a band and started gigging in the local dives. Jeff Johnson took over the bass for Emerson, who became the band's "manager" of sorts. Then guitarist Warner Hodges joined, bringing the missing hard rock component to the lineup. And finally, when drummer Perry Baggs sat behind the traps on that fateful New Years' Eve, the first true "Americana" band was born.

The Scorchers' journey that took them all over the world and produced eight albums, one of which (1983's Fervor) found a place in the Country Music Association's list of the 100 Greatest Country Albums.

Reflecting on the band's run, Ringenberg says, "We did some incredible things, and influenced a lot of people." But when asked to identify the high points, he has to pause and think for a moment. "In the '80s, the 'Lost and Found Tour - 1985' was pretty amazing. I think we were at our musical peak then, and every night was a blast. [In] the '90s, I think doing the Conan O'Brien show was a magical night. However, some of my best memories are from the real early Atlanta shows, especially at the 688 Club. I don't know why, but those gigs were always so intense. We loved playing in Atlanta."

Mixed in with the good times were plenty of rough times as well. In the late '80s, personal and professional differences prompted Johnson to leave the band, and the Scorchers went through a number of other players before finally dissolving -- temporarily -- in 1990. Baggs was diagnosed with diabetes, and had to seriously modify his rock star lifestyle in order to preserve his health.

Throughout the '90s, the Scorchers have re-formed a number of times, once with Johnson for the sadly overlooked Clear Impetuous Morning, and more recently for a double live album with current bassist Kenny Ames in the lineup.

"The Scorchers have never officially broken up. We are just on hiatus more than we are together," says Ringenberg. And when asked what inspired this current run, he replies, "It's been 20 years since we started, so we had to celebrate in some way. This December we are doing five shows, all in the South."

To commemorate the landmark anniversary, Ringenberg and the band have pulled together a CD of rare cuts. "We are calling it Wildfires and Misfires, and it has a bunch of studio outtakes, single B-sides and live tracks that were never really available before. It won't be in the stores until February, so at the shows will be the first chance to get it."

Ringenberg continues to perform and record as a solo artist, and now has his own label, Courageous Chicken Records. He has a new CD of duets in the can with a late-spring release date. As for the other Scorchers: Hodges owns a successful construction company in Nashville; Baggs works for the Nashville newspaper and does occasional studio work; Johnson lives in Conyers, dabbling in home recording and photography; and Emerson runs E-Squared Records with fellow Nashville rebel Steve Earle.

Ringenberg and the band (with Ames on bass) are looking forward to the upcoming anniversary shows. "Looking back, there is a bittersweet feeling of nostalgia, and a lot of history," he says. "Warner is really excited about the gigs, and I think they will be a blast. We never were a big rehearsal band. But after 20 years, it should be pretty easy."

james.kelly@creativeloafing.com

Jason and the Scorchers play Sat., Dec. 15, at Smith's Olde Bar, 1578 Piedmont Ave. Doors open at 9 p.m. $12-$15. 404.875.1522. www.smithsoldebar.com.

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