August 29, 2008

FolkFest Opens Arms to Country-Rock Pioneers

By Michael Machosky

Way back in 1981, a young punk named Jason Ringenberg, son of an Illinois hog farmer, first started playing with fire, mixing a few highly combustible sounds that aren't supposed to go together -- country and rock 'n' roll.

Of course, he got burned. But Ringenberg and a few like-minded buddies were hooked. They had created a sound utterly their own, combining the booze-soaked authenticity of classic country with the dangerous, all-out energy of punk rock -- and Jason & The Scorchers was born.

Although mainstream success proved elusive -- they got very close -- the Scorchers' albums and crazed live shows inspired several generations of hayseed rockers, counterculture cowboys and most of the bands that would fly the "alternative country" flag.

After multiple hiatuses, near-breakups and side projects, the Scorchers have been silent since about 2001. But the band was selected to receive the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in September. Combined with a few offers for gigs that they couldn't pass up -- including this weekend's Johnstown FolkFest -- Jason & The Scorchers is back in business.

"I've always profoundly loved playing Johnstown -- I've done it once before," says Ringenberg, on the phone from his home outside Nashville. "I think it's one of the coolest festivals in the world."

Ringenberg is happy with the way things worked out for the band, although it never quite reached the level of commercial success it once seemed destined for.

"In the mid-'80s, we got the push from Capital Records. American radio and MTV gave us some attention," Ringenberg explains. "But I don't think there was anything that could have happened differently that could have put us over the edge into that mainstream world.

"I think we were too strange. The band was just too eccentric, my voice was too odd, the combination of the music we played was kind of intense. It wasn't the combination of country and rock the way the Eagles did it -- it was like Minnie Pearl meets the Sex Pistols or Black Flag."

The cultural divide between country and rock 'n' roll always seems to punish bands that dare to mix the two -- and Jason & The Scorchers never seemed to have it easy.

"Yeah, it is very difficult to mix the two and make it work -- particularly commercially, because you're going to fall into cracks in terms of radio and marketing," Ringenberg says.

That hasn't changed over the years -- but almost everything else about the music industry has.

"Yes, you can get your music out there and heard easier, but on the other hand, everybody can get their music out there," Ringenberg says. "You're still competing with other people for the guy who works at the gas station, who only has a few dollars to spend on music.

"The money's not there like it used to be. In the last 10 years, you can't even get recording advances anymore to make records. But on the other side of the coin, live music is probably worth more now than it's ever been."

Luckily, playing live is what the band does best, and enjoys most.

"I think you're either born with it or not," Ringenberg says. "Some people just have that desire to play live, and you can see it when they walk onto that stage. Jerry Lee Lewis, the Grateful Dead had it, the Rolling Stones had it. Those kinds of people just keep getting on those stages, whether they need to or not, financially. They still end up on those stages, doing what they do, and most of them do it until the day they die."

Ringenberg is definitely one of those people.

"I'm addicted to live performance -- I'll admit that freely. I think that Warren Hodges would say the same thing, the main player in the band. You can see it when he walks onstage."

Of course, getting onstage means something different now than when Ringenberg was an angry young kid ready to rile up the Nashville establishment. "Farmer Jason" is Ringenberg's latest project -- a kid-friendly band playing catchy, up-tempo rockers for the crayons-and-paste set. He'll be doing a few Farmer Jason sets at the Folkfest.

"When I talked to Jason ... he was in the process of freezing sweet corn he'd grown," says Shelley Johansson of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, which stages the Folkfest. "The man who invented Farmer Jason is actually a farmer, which I find so delightful!

"He's quite a performer, to be able to rock like that with Jason & the Scorchers and then pull off Farmer Jason, who would be corny and annoying if Jason himself weren't so sincere. You know how kids can spot a fake, but they all love Farmer Jason, including my own 4- year-old."

(c) 2008 Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.