Videos by American Songwriter
On a particularly sweltering summer afternoon in 1974, I stood on the small balcony of my upstairs duplex in the Notre Dame de Grace area of Montreal attempting to aerate my over-taxed armpits. In the corner of one ear, I detected the rapid crescendo of cranked-up music emanating from an approaching, as-yet-unseen vehicle. As the offending, top-down convertible screeched around the corner from Sherbrooke onto Marcel Avenue, the song’s identity became shockingly clear. The tune deafening my neighborhood was “Sunshine On My Shoulders” by benign, bespectacled pop-folkie John Denver. To this day, I still chuckle over the irony of that driver brazenly blasting syrup-y, sweet Denver – of all artists – from the stereo of his muscle car.
Recently, while perusing the iTunes Store, I stumbled across another equally popular John Denver number – one that, oddly enough, would have made perfect sense pumping from the speakers of that long-ago noisy ragtop. Ironically, there is actually nothing whatsoever ironic about “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as rendered by Jason and The Scorchers. In fact, the seminal cowpunkers’ raucous approach to this overly cheerful homecoming anthem states the song’s message as clearly – and perhaps even more directly – than did its composer’s original, chart-topping recording. For me, the true irony is that The Scorchers’ track was recorded 30 years ago.
In a town famous for honoring its songwriters, Jason Ringenberg’s notoriety has always been less about genuflecting to its tune-smithing tradition and more about abducting a composition, wrestling it to the ground, and stomping the holy crap out of it – as he did with such disparate classics as Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and George Jones’ “Why Baby Why.” From their infancy, Jason and his bandmates invariably delivered manic, high-energy, country-rooted rock, while exposing the heretofore-unplumbed facets of their curiously chosen repertoire. Still, there was always a healthy amount of heart behind the snark.
In the early ’80s, Ringenberg unsurprisingly found his frenetic, punk-derived country completely out of step with Music Row. Perhaps he commenced his career about 2,000 miles too far east. At that very moment in time, Ringenberg’s style would have fit perfectly into the thriving Los Angeles club scene, alongside Joe Ely, Meat Puppets, The Blasters, and X – who, as The Knitters, would go on to cop a cow-punkish attitude of their own. I happened to be in attendance the night Ringenberg and his band ripped the vaunted Whisky A Go Go a new asshole. After that balls-to-the-wall performance, it was no longer a mystery to the luddites of Sunset Strip why EMI Records had snapped up the up-till-then indie act.
From the same stage rock-anointed by Jim Morrison back in 1965, front man Ringenberg acquitted himself as a charismatic, kinetic whirlwind – a superstar in the making – while guitarist Warner Hodges throttled his axe and drummer Perry Baggs bludgeoned his kit. If Danny Elfman and Oingo Boingo – an equally eclectic, visionary, and un-categorize-able ensemble of the day – could make hit records, why wouldn’t radio take to Ringenberg’s tongue-in-cheek, muscle-bound rockabilly? But alas, even while their discs inspired lofty praise from the likes of Robert Christgau and scored top-five poll numbers in The Village Voice, The Scorchers never received their due.
With 20-20 hindsight, one wonders how it might have turned out differently. It’s difficult to fathom how growing up on an Illinois hog farm harboring dreams of rock stardom prepared young Jason to withstand the temptations of that dangling platinum carrot. How could he possibly have resisted the A&R man’s seductive pick-up line, “Jason, I see you as ‘the next Jim Dandy,’” or some such smarmy poppycock? Even lion tamer Tom Werman – one of the most commercially successful hard-rock producers ever – failed to domesticate the Scorchers’ snarl. Was it naïveté, immaturity, shear stubbornness …? Or, could it have been some genuine sense of personal integrity that emboldened this groundbreaking ensemble to stand up so adamantly for their creative independence? Perhaps they were swayed by the insular idolatry of a small-but-mighty nucleus of adoring fans. Then again, maybe Jason simply believed unwaveringly in his heart of hearts that the record-buying public would inevitably fall in love with his uncompromising, right-off-the-farm swagger and hop on the hayride. Or, could it be that making it big wasn’t his goal at all?
From the birth of rock and roll, many of its most culturally alarming sub genres have found their way to mainstream acceptance. Bowie scored with glam. Alice Cooper popularized shock rock. Quiet Riot took metal to the top of the charts. R.E.M. snuck alt-rock into the Top 40. Green Day made punk palatable. Gangster rap, house music, reggae, etc. all ultimately shed cultural stigma to enjoy mass success. Cowpunk, however, has yet to find its way into the greater public’s embrace. Today, while mainstream “country” enjoys unprecedented popularity, and so much of its Top-40 playlist sounds like dressed-up Lynyrd Skynyrd, the influence of punkabilly has yet to penetrate the genre’s faux-rock veneer. Garth Brooks gives KISS props for the inspiration to take country to the arena stage. Still, I haven’t heard any of the hit makers headlining in Garth’s boot steps hailing The Blasters or The Cramps – let alone Jason and the Scorchers – as their Muse. In my opinion, there’s something distinctly wrong with that.
Or … maybe cowpunkers like Jason Ringenberg are actually the punkest punks of all.
This article appears in our March/April 2015 issue. Subscribe here.