Scorcher, Sinner, sober: Warner E. Hodges is a man of many hats

Warner E. Hodges
Courtesy of Trudi Knight/Bands on Stage

It’s been 27 years since Warner E. Hodges threw back a drink, but it wouldn’t be honest to say he didn’t have fun before the booze took over his life.

The Ties That Bind UsAs a founding member of Jason and the Scorchers — which started out as Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, incidentally — Hodges was the V-8 engine beneath the hood of a rumbling ’69 Mach One, a dusty, dirty machine that left stripes off the line and barreled through the rhinestone crowded streets of Nashville leaving carnage in its wake.

Before Uncle Tupelo or Wilco or Whiskeytown or the Old 97’s or any number of alt-country forebears that would establish Americana as a popular genre, there was Jason and the Scorchers. The band has been tagged with any number of labels, but “cow punk” seems to sum up the sound perfectly:

“We listened to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, but we also listened to George Jones and Hank Williams,” Hodges told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “We were influenced by all of it. It was a weird thing when we first busted out, coming at rock ‘n’ roll from a country standpoint, but in those days, especially, we were different. We didn’t set out to be; we just were. Nobody was doing it at that point in Nashville. In those days, it was all Lee Greenwood Vegas country.”

Small wonder, then, that Jason and the Scorchers set a high bar for the fusion of country and rock ‘n’ roll, especially outside of mainstream airwaves, in the years to come. In clubs around the country, the band was a force of nature, with frontman Jason Ringenberg howling and cavorting like a meth-fueled Rev. Kane from “Poltergeist II” and Hodges strangling a screaming six-string like the love child of Jimmy Page and Jack the Ripper. For Hodges, it was the stuff rock ‘n’ roll dreams were made of.

“I would be a liar if I said I didn’t have a good time,” he said. “Up until ’85, I had the time of my life, but then something changed. I’m not comfortable in my own skin, and I’ve never been comfortable in my own skin. I still don’t do good with down time — I haven’t had a drink in 27 years, but I still don’t want three days off.

“Back then, I felt like I was the life of the party, but I was just drunk. I drank a lot, and I thought I was just having fun, but in the end, it will win, if you truly are an alcoholic. It wants it all, and you have to figure out a way to stop that.”

Living in (Homemade) Sin

Warner E. Hodges

Courtesy of Trudi Knight/Bands On Stage

These days, Hodges is a content and sober individual who splits his time between occasional Scorchers gigs and a more steady role as the guitarist for Dan Baird and Homemade Sin, whose frontman came up alongside the Scorchers in the 1980s with his old group, the Georgia Satellites.

“I met Dan and Rick Richards (the other guitarist in the Satellites) in ’84, as best I remember,” Hodges said. “I remember meeting them at one of the old 40 Watt clubs in Athens (Ga.), and at that particular time, they were between bass players and drummers. That was before the Satellites that we all know happened. Later on, I had been playing some with Stacie Collins — her husband, Al, is in the Scorchers, and Dan produced Stacie’s record and was in and out of the band.

“I really wanted to play with Dan because I loved his music and his records, and I ended up doing a little solo record that he came over and participated on. About the same time, he walked in, threw down a bunch of CDs and said, ‘My guitar player quit, and I need some help.’ I thought, ‘Wow — cool!’ And I’ve been here ever since. I love playing with them, and that would have never happened if I had still been drinking.”

Hodges released his first solo album in 2007; a year later, he was an official member of Homemade Sin, a band he’s added guitar firepower to ever since. He’s still plugging away at a solo career as his side hustle — he released the studio album “Right Back Where I Started” in 2017 and followed it up with live solo record earlier this year, and Baird and Hodges also play in the Nashville-based four-piece The Bluefields, which includes Steve Earle’s stickman Brad Pemberton and singer Joe Blanton of Royal Court of China. That band is wrapping up a fourth studio album and a best-of collection, and somewhere in the chamber is a new Warner E. Hodges solo album, more touring and eventually another Homemade Sin album.

Needless to say, life is full and life is good for a guy who once went out to lunch one drunken weekend in Nashville and sobered up in Toronto.

“It does get better. You can beat it, and you can win — you’ve just got to do it a day at a time,” Hodges said. “I’ve accumulated 27 years, and I did them all one day at a time. And that’s an amazing thing. Twenty-seven years, that’s crazy long to me. I remember sitting in a (12 Step) meeting, and I had about 90 days when a friend of mine got his five-year chip. And I remember thinking, ‘Five years — good Lord!’ But here it is for me, 27 years later.”

A Scorched earth policy

Warner E. Hodges

Courtesy of Trudi Knight/Bands on Stage

As the grandson of a moonshiner, Hodges came by his affinity for booze honestly, although his parents respected its ability to rob good men of their potential. His mother’s family had a history of alcoholism, so she kept her distance, Hodges said; for his father, a big night consisted of a couple of drinks, and never when he was driving. But by the time he was 10 or 11, Hodges was playing in his parents’ country band, and it seemed to be everywhere the group performed.

“I don’t think anybody sets out to be an alcoholic; one day, you just realize you’ve got a damn drink in your hand every time you’re awake,” he said. “My experience in the ’80s, after the Scorchers got a record deal, was that it’s expected you’re going to be drinking on the job. I had a drink in my hand all the damn time, and when I decided to quit drinking, I thought I could just walk away from it, and it wasn’t the case.”

Born in Germany, Hodges started out playing drums, but when his parents moved back to the States and settled in Nashville in the 1970s, he fell in love with the guitar after an AC/DC concert in 1973. For the rest of the decade, he made his bones in Music City’s underground punk and do-it-yourself scene, and he was familiar with Ringenberg through mutual friends. Original Scorchers bassist Jeff Johnson saw Ringenberg open for R.E.M. with a band that included Jack Emerson, who would go on to run the label Praxis, which first signed Jason and the Scorchers.

“I saw (Ringenberg) when he opened for Carl Perkins, and I said, ‘Wow! I want to play with this guy,’” Hodges recalled. “He was nuts! He spent half the time in the audience, and I said, ‘Sign me up! Where do I get in on that?’”

Although their relationship is professional more than it is personal, the two built their careers on mutual respect and an undeniable chemistry that quickly turned Nashville on its head when the Scorchers first launched. With Johnson and original drummer Perry Baggs, the quartet was one of the most original things to come out of Music City in years, releasing the EP “Reckless Country Soul” in 1982 (as Jason and the Nashville Scorchers) and following it up a year later with the EP “Fervor” (which dropped the city’s name from the moniker).

The full-length “Lost and Found” saw the guys on the EMI label, the song “White Lies” got MTV airplay and the record is generally regarded as a landmark recording, with one reviewer noting that “Jason and the Scorchers burn like nothing since General Sherman's troops marched through Georgia." In London, another critic described the band’s set as one of the five best the city had ever seen.

But when it came time to record the follow-up, 1986’s “Still Standing,” the edges were starting to fray, Hodges said.

The bottom falls out

Warner E. Hodges

Courtesy of Trudi Knight/Bands on Stage

“By that point, it had elevated from beer and a little bit of pot to harder drugs and serious alcohol use inside of the band by everybody except for Jason,” Hodges said. “We were starting to have internal problems inside of the band at that point, and when we needed to do the best record of our career, we delivered, in my opinion, the worst record of our career. It comes down to a lot of places to point the blame, but I’ve got to take my fair share of it.”

A year later, Hodges married his first wife, and she was one of the first people outside of the music business to suggest that he might, in fact, have a problem. Young and hotheaded and still able to sling chords like a machine gunner spraying bullets downrange, he refused to listen, he added.

“She knew I had an alcohol problem three or four years before I was willing to talk about it,” he said. “I didn’t pay her any attention, and I should have, but you know how that is. I knew everything. I knew it all, and everybody around me was full of shit, I thought.”

By 1989, the Scorchers were on the verge of falling apart. Johnson left the band, and the day the guys released the record “Thunder and Fire,” A&M dropped the group. Hodges sobered up to make that record, but after the guys split the money they were owed by the label, he disappeared into his cups for the next three years, he said.

“I damn near drank myself to death,” he said. “I got a real high-profile tour with a hardcore drinking buddy of mine, this 50-week tour, and I showed up to the first rehearsal drunk as a dog and got fired. But I still didn’t see it at the time. The straw that broke the camel’s back was after I moved back to Nashville — I had been living in L.A. at the time — and had a drunken weekend. That’s when I came to in Toronto.

“I came to in somebody’s house that I didn’t know, and then I found a buddy’s phone number in my pocket, a guy that had been sober for five years. I called him up when I got home and went over to his house and fell apart in his living room. He took me to a (12 Step) meeting, and I’ve been sober since that day.”

That was in 1992; in the rooms, he said, he found a lot of missing buddies that had vanished from the bar stools he’d become so familiar with over the previous three years.

“They had disappeared from the drinking scene, and there was a reason — I found them there!” he said. “I saw people getting their lives back together. I felt I had messed my own life up, and it was nobody else’s fault. It was my fault, and this seemed like a way to get my life back together, a little bit at a time, and the people there were willing to help.”

The fulfillment of Promises

Jason and the Scorchers

Jason and the Scorchers: Al Collins (from left), Jason Ringenberg, Warner E. Hodges and Pontus Snibb. (courtesy of Tony Mottram)

Hodges knew he was done, he said, because everything else he had tried during the previous three years had never worked. Like many addicts and alcoholics, he thought he could think his way around the problem. Every time, the booze won out.

“I tried every shorter, quicker path I could think of, and none of them worked. I was drunk every day,” he said. I heard it described one time that it’s like being on a merry-go-round, and if they’d just stop the ride, I could get off … but they never stopped the ride. And in that state, you’re not making great decisions.”

His friend, however, seemed to be living proof that this new way of life had potential. When that friend picked up five years and blew Hodges’ mind, he wasn't necessarily all in — but his friend believed, and that was enough to jump-start Hodges’ own sobriety.

“They told me, ‘Don’t drink today, and come back tomorrow,’ and I thought, ‘Wow — I can do that, if that’s all I’ve got to do,’” he said.

And sobriety, he discovered, equaled freedom. Going into the program, he figured that his guitar-playing days were done. Playing in bars with a drinking problem? It didn’t seem possible … but as he figured out that sobriety is more about changing the insides than it is avoiding the liquor, he came to realize that anything was possible.

“That was the gift I got back,” he said. “The second gift is that I met my wife, who I’ve been married to for 25 years, at a meeting. If I had not been a drunk, I wouldn’t have met her. I wouldn’t be playing with Dan if I wasn’t sober.”

And the Scorchers might never have reunited, releasing the 1995 album “A Blazing Grace” and continuing the come back together off and on ever since. Homemade Sin is his mainstay, but every so often, Ringenberg takes off his Farmer Jason hat, grabs the mic and shouts that familiar refrain that made so many people fall in love with the band from the outset: “Help me, Warner, go!” Earlier this fall, the Scorchers shared a bill with Dan Baird and Homemade Sin, and Hodges pulled double duty in both.

He is, he said, having the time of his life — all while keeping the main thing, the main thing.

“The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know a damn thing,” he said with a laugh.

Keeping it under lock and key

Dan Baird and Homemade Sin

Dan Baird and Homemade Sin: Warner E. Hodges (from left), Mauro Magellan, Baird and Micke Nilsson. (courtesy of Trudi Knight/Bands On Stage)

He doesn’t hit as many meetings as he once did — twice a day for the first two years of his sobriety, and one every day until he got his own 5-year chip — mostly because life is so full, and getting out to meetings while on tour can be a logistical headache. However, he stays in touch with a network, and because so many fans know about and appreciate his sobriety — and even, some of them, joining him on that journey — he fellowships with other recovering alcoholics all the time.

“One of the reasons I get to do what I get to do is because I carry that message into clubs every night,” he said. “Usually two or three times a week, somebody pulls me aside and wants to talk. I’ll usually sit down with them and find out where their head is at and try to explain my situation. Usually, they want to know how I’m out here doing this and staying sober, and I just explain to them what I do.”

In the beginning, he tells them, there was a lot of fear. In 1992, Johnson returned to the Scorchers fold, and the guys did a tour around a best-of compilation. Hodges was only five months sober at the time, and after the final encore, he would hit the road.

“I didn’t spend one minute in the club that I didn’t have to be there,” he said. “Slowly but surely, I realized, ‘I can do this and not drink.’”

He still doesn’t spend a lot of his down time in the club, but the desire to drink has been lifted — just as the program promises. But that daily reprieve, he knows well, is based on personal maintenance.

“The dude in the cage, inside my head, is still there,” he said. “He still wants out. I’ve just got to keep him in there. And if that thought creeps in while I’m driving down the road — ‘you deserve a beer’ — I know that’s the guy talking. And I just tell him to shut the hell up and get back in the cage.

“He’s the reason I have a chair in the rooms — but I also get to be there when somebody reaches out for help, like I did. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s the only way you really get to keep it, is if you give it away.”