More than a decade before today's alternative country sweep was in full swing-attracting listeners who prefer a good dose of twang, grit and spontaneity in their country music - Praxis International helped pave the way for left-field country by fusing roots music with the do-it-yourself ethos and spirit of punk.
Look at the fine print on Jason and the Scorchers' 1982 Reckless Country Soul EP or Shaver's 1993 Tramp On Your Street album, recordings that have had a tremendous influence on the alternative country movement of the late '90s, and you'll see the Praxis logo.
Praxis International began as a scrappy, independent record label housed in a small and dank Nashville basement apartment. It evolved into an artist management/development company with major label ties and offices across the street from the old Acuff-Rose building on Franklin Road. The core team of Jack Emerson, Andy McLenon and Kay Clary first came together 17 years ago to record and champion Jason and the Nashville Scorchers, as they were then called, and wound up playing a major role in giving Music City an alternative scene it could call its own.
The Praxis gang helped the Georgia Satellites achieve worldwide success with the smash hit "Keep Your Hands To Yourself." Working together from 1982-1994, they also aided the music careers of John Hiatt, Webb Wilder, Sonny Landreth, Steve Forbert and others.
Their partnership ended just before Gavin, a long running San Francisco-based radio trade publication, instituted its Americana chart in 1995. Giving the unnameable a name, the term "Americana" is used interchangeably with *alternative country* to describe an eclectic format that encompasses renegade country, literate folk, high lonesome bluegrass, retro hillbilly boogie, twang-tinged rock and the catch-all singer-songwriter category basically, everything but what's on "hit" country radio.
While the genre is broad, its audience is becoming more and more organized. Conceptualized alt. country magazines, independent labels, Internet websites and discussion groups, Americana and non-commercial radio stations, specialty music festivals and a loose circuit of nightclubs are all attracting and defining its collective audience of fans. Nearly all of the acts that were associated with Praxis are now linked with the alt. country movement. However, such a clearly defined infrastructure wasn't in place to bolster alt. country acts when Emerson, McLenon and Clary were learning the ropes of the music business.
"I never really thought about whether or not I would make a lifetime career for myself in the music business when I first moved to Nashville," McLenon says. "I just never thought about it. All I cared about, religiously, was letting the world know about that one band. I was convinced that Jason and the Scorchers were the greatest.
The only thing I had above Kay and Jack was years. I had more confidence than those two, not regarding business issues, but the validity of the artists and concept. I was relentless, fearless, there was no doubt in my mind how great this stuff was. That was my mission. How to make a living didn't even enter into it."
"I don't think we were looking at it as a business," Clary agrees, seated next to her former colleagues in McLenon's Music Row office. "It was just something we had to do. There was encouragement everyday that people liked the music. We were writing letters to (noted music critics) Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh, and they were actually writing us back."
Indeed, Jason and the Scorchers' early recordings for Praxis, a verb that means putting theory into practice--laid the groundwork for Music City's rock scene in the early '80s.
As one writer succinctly put it, the Scorchers erected a sound that approximated nothing less than the Clash hurling a wrecking ball through the Grand Ole Opry. The Scorchers had a deep respect for traditional country, however, culling from honky-tonk heroes Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell the way the Rolling Stones culled from blues greats Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The band's liberating and edgy fusion of honky-tonk and punk was manifested not only in well-written original songs, but also in a number of transformed covers by Hanks Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Carl Perkins that sounded as if someone had flipped a phonograph from 33 to 78 r.p.m.
Music journalists and fans came up with the term "cowpunk" to describe the hillbilly-hearted, guitar-blazing rock 'n' roll combo, but it was a label that didn't necessarily sit well with the band's management team.
"I didn't want the band to be perceived as a novelty act--their music never became a mere parody of country," McLenon explains. "Gram Parsons once said he wished he could find a band with the soul of Hank Williams that could rock like the Rolling Stones. To me, that's what Jason and the Scorchers were. The band could out rock anyone in the world, then sit down and do (Merle Haggard's) "Sing Me Back Home" as soulfully as Gram Parsons or anybody else."
The band's verve, conviction and vision became a source of inspiration to Nashville's alternative music scene. Nashville roots-rocker Tommy Womack (formerly of indie bands Government Cheese and the Bis-quits) enshrined the Scorchers in the pages of his autobiography, Cheese Chronicles: The True Story Of A Rock 'N' Roll Band You Never Heard Of. "There was genuine punk rock in (Nashville)," writes Womack, "and one band stood knees, hips, and shoulders above the rest of them: Jason and the Nashville Scorchers. Before them, rock bands had been unapproachable icons that appeared before us in great barns and sped away before their humanity was unveiled. The Scorchers, however, together with their friends in Georgia - R.E.M. - were, by their close-up and familiar natures, making it all look somehow realistic to want to do this sort of thing."
A self-described "mediocre bass player," Emerson was actually a member of the original Scorchers band lineup before he became the group's full-time manager and proceeded to record the band for his new Praxis label.
"In those days, the Scorchers, R.E.M., Alex Chilton, the dBs, the Replacements and other indie bands were all sleeping on each other's floors, helping each other land gigs," Emerson recalls. "All of that was based on fandom; we all wanted to communicate as much music to as many people as possible."
Emerson started Praxis when he was in his early twenties working on an English/Literature degree at Vanderbilt University. His first release came in 1981, a 7-inch record titled Never in Nashville that featured four underground Nashville bands associated with the new wave/punk rock scene.
"Starting the label stemmed a lot from conversations I had with Elvis Costello and Jake Riviera (founder of Stiff Records, the independent British label Costello recorded for) when they were in Nashville making Costello's album Almost Blue," Emerson explains. "I was moaning that Nashville didn't have any indie labels comparable to Stiff to support local acts, and Jake basically told me to get off my fat behind and do something about it. He encouraged me to put out my own records, like he did at Stiff, reminding me that Nashville was full of studios and record pressing plants."
Emerson enlisted help from Clary and McLenon to help him with his next project, the Jason and the Scorchers' cult classic Reckless Country Soul EP.
Clary, a rockabilly fan, moved to Nashville from Wisconsin to attend Belmont University's music business program and first discovered Emerson when he was a radio jock playing a rowdy mix of hillbilly and punk recordings over the city's airwaves at Vanderbilt's student-run station, WRVU.
"I heard Jack play (the 1943 Al Dexter classic) "Pistol Packin' Mama," which my dad used to sing in the car a lot," Clary remembers. "So, I called the DJ to find out who recorded the song. I started talking to Jack on the phone and he invited me to a Panther Burns show that was happening the following week on the Vanderbilt campus." Looking to augment her music business studies with real world experience, she volunteered to help Emerson get the word out about Jason and the Scorchers as his office manager and publicist.
Emerson's friendship with McLenon dates back further. Both men are from Florida, and they met at a record store McLenon worked at in Naples. The two music buds continued to stay in close touch, even after Emerson moved to Nashville and McLenon moved to Baton Rouge. Emerson sent him demo tapes of the Scorchers and talked the band up until McLenon made a road trip to Nashville on New Year's Eve 1981 to hear the group in action.
They attended an Elvis Costello show at the Grand Ole Opry House earlier that night, and then in the beginning hours of 1982 they traveled 30 miles to catch the Scorchers raise the roof of a cinder block, storefront dive in Murfreesboro. It was the first gig that Jeff Johnson replaced Emerson in the bass slot, making it the debut of the classic Scorchers lineup: Jason Ringenberg, Warner Hodges, Perry Baggs and Johnson.
"It was a life changing moment," McLenon says. "I saw in them everything I love about rock 'n' roll in one package."
Reckless Country Soul was recorded just a week later. In true indie, do-it-yourself fashion, five songs were recorded live to four-track in a three-hour session in a makeshift home studio. The band set up and played in the living room while Ringenberg sang in the hallway.
Praxis followed the release of Reckless Country Soul with Fervor. Released in July '83-- with essential help from two early believers, now-famous Nashville music attorney Jim Zumwalt and New York-based ICM booking agent Terry Rhodes--the six-sing Fervor EP was the record that got the Scorchers their major label deal. Everyone's hard work paid off; the Scorchers managed to get signed to EMI at a time when the company was achieving chart success with the J. Geils Band, Stray Cats, David Bowie and George Thorogood. R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe contributed the song "Both Sides of the Line" and some backup vocals to Fervor. The EMI repackage of the Praxis original includes Bob Dylan's "Absolute Sweet Marie" done at 180 miles per hour.
Now concentrating on management and artist development, Praxis International began guiding the careers of the Georgia Satellites, Sluggers, Questionnaires, Webb Wilder, Steve Forbert and others. Recognized as a major source for talent, Praxis became a Southeast A&R branch of A&M Records and later Zoo Entertainment/BMG. In doing so, Praxis worked with John Hiatt during the release of his breakthrough album, Bring the Family. Soon thereafter Emerson, McLenon and Clary played a major role in the comeback of another brilliant, rootsy singer-songwriter while working closely with Billy Joe Shaver during the release of Tramp On Your Street, an album that became a rallying point for many of today's alt. country fans.
Although the three kindred spirits who were at the core of Praxis have gone their separate ways after spending a dozen years setting the stage for the alt. country movement, each is still in Nashville and associated with acts working on the fringes of mainstream country.
Emerson has partnered with roots-rock stalwart Steve Earle to form E-Squared Records, which has released notable alt. country albums by The V-roys, Cheri Knight, 6 String Drag and Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band. Clary is currently Publicity Director at FrontPage Publicity, where her clients include The Kinleys, Kathy Mattea, Charlie Robison, Jack Ingram, Bruce Robison, Clay Davidson and Sony Nashville/Legacy's American Milestones Series. McLenon is the Vice President of A&R at Sire Records, helping acts such as Mandy Barnett, Don Walser and the Derailers carry the torch for traditionally steeped country music.