How good are Jason and the Scorchers? Let me put it this way: In 1985, when their first full-length Lost and Found came out, I was one of several hundred people standing on the blacktop outside Cat's Records on West End when a roar went up from the lot, carried by kids watching from blocks away. The show started with lead singer Jason Ringenberg convulsing so hard he chipped his tooth on the mic stand. It climaxed with Ringenberg scaling the billboard outside Cat's, Warner Hodges slinging his guitar in orbiting rings of Saturn, and Jeff Johnson making a blur of his bass strings. Traffic stopped all the way to Vandy.
That was the second best Scorchers show I ever saw.
The best came 10 years later, in 1995 at Exit/In. The intervening decade had not been kind to the band. There were label woes, a poorly received record; they'd parted ways amid reports of debts and dismal day gigs. A malaise had settled over the city's rock scene — the "curse" that supposedly activated the day the Scorchers dropped the "Nashville" from their name.
Then came word that for the music-biz showcase the NEA Extravaganza, the Scorchers were to play a show featuring music from a new record. Fans made the packed room a tinderbox of anticipation and dread. The lights went down to the glow of red coals, and the Scorchers stepped onstage.
I want to tell you the first song was "Lost Highway," but the truth is, I just can't remember. I was crying too hard. We all were. All those years of dashed hopes vanished the second they hit that first note like a blindfolded man flipping off a firing squad. The band members looked stunned at the intensity of the response. They wrote their names in fire that night. They split atoms.
All these years later, the image of the Scorchers that first comes to mind isn't Ringenberg on the billboard, with the city and the world beyond extending at his feet. It's the Scorchers' yeoman drummer Perry Baggs at the Exit/In, defiantly dabbing tears with the back of each white-knuckled, drumstick-clutching fist. Already Baggs had the health troubles that would end his life far too soon. But that night, by God, he was back at his station, pummeling the drum roll that powers the Scorchers' peerless barnburner "Both Sides of the Line." He would ride that slow-burning fuse all the way to the bang.
Maybe the Scorchers aren't what people normally think of as "Southern rock." But that night at the Exit/In, Jason and the Scorchers were the most Southern of bands. They played to ward off the defeat we've all felt in our bones. They stood for all of us who've been knocked down and wondered whether getting up was worth the next hit. And Baggs, who died last month after years of bad health, embodied that spirit. Although his struggles with diabetes kept him from performing much in recent years, only death could pry the drumsticks from his fists for good.
This Saturday night, joined by guitar ace Dan Baird, Stacie Collins and other friends, the Scorchers will perform a memorial show for Baggs at Exit/In to raise funds for his funeral expenses. It will find the band shouldering an extraordinary burden of memory, legend and loss. But after all these years, the band that first put Nashville's rock scene on the map still defies any talk of lost causes — and what could be more Southern than that?