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Jason and the Scorchers Rise From Near Ashes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not long ago, Jason and the Scorchers looked like a band on the brink of dissolution. Jason Ringenberg was trying to pull his life together after a particularly acrimonious divorce. Guitarist Warner Hodges, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer Perry Baggs were grappling with some serious health problems.

Still, they not only managed to hang in there--they play tonight at the Galaxy in Santa Ana --but to make an album that has been successful with the critics, and successful therapeutically as well.

Released earlier this year, “A Blazing Grace” has been hailed by rock scribes from coast to coast as a welcome return of the fevered country-punk sound that made the band from Tennessee seem like such an up-and-comer 12 years ago. But perhaps more important, making the album “was a real cathartic experience for us,” Ringenberg says.

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“We were all going through some really serious personal battles, battling our own demons and stuff. Doing the record gave us something to focus on outside of ourselves. I hate to sound over-the-top spiritual about it, but I always felt God was kind of behind it. There were so many things that were happening that were kind of out of our control.”

For example, the Scorchers--who had neither a record label nor a manager at the time--suddenly were offered free studio time in Nashville to cut “A Blazing Grace,” an especially significant stroke of good fortune for musicians who had spent a good chunk of the ‘80s trying to repay EMI America for enormous recording debts they had accrued.

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Economics had only been part of the problem. “There was constant drug and alcohol abuse [within the band],” Ringenberg recalls. Beyond that, when critics’ kudos failed to translate into big record sales, the band members started arguing over artistic and commercial directions: Ringenberg championed country roots while the others favored a pure rock sound, not to mention lyrics that might be more accessible than Ringenberg’s oft-obtuse tales.

“A lot of the problems had to do with being young and not seeing eye-to-eye on a lot of things,” Ringenberg says, “the constant tension between ‘are we a hard rock band or are we a country-rock band?’ There were times in the ‘80s when we went way over to the right. There were times when we sounded like a damn California rock band! I don’t mean to insult Californians, but it just wasn’t what we were about.”

These days, he thinks the Scorchers are more inspired than ever. He says that clean and sober, they are far more consistent in concert than they used to be. “Drugs and alcohol can only fuel [live shows] for a while. Then they start taking away from them.”

Now on Mammoth Records, an independent label based in North Carolina, the Scorchers seem content to make modestly budgeted albums for their core of old and new fans. Ringenberg describes “A Blazing Grace” as a “charming and down-home” record, not unlike the band’s earliest work. At 35, he says that he harbors no illusions of stardom and that for now, his rewards are making good music in a band that is much more harmonious than it was.

“We’re not like buddies, but we’re much better friends now. It’s much more than a business proposition. We’re like musical brothers. And brothers don’t always get along, but they always stand together.”

* Jason and the Scorchers play tonight at 8:30 at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. $13.50. (714) 957-0600.


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