The Fire Still Rages

Melora Zaner winces and tilts her head so she can peer over her eyeglasses as she looks at drummer Mark Medley. Founding members of the groundbreaking Nashville punk band Raging Fire, which formed in 1983, Medley recognizes that look — even if the two only have worked together a few times since releasing a career compilation album in 2015 and performing two reunion concerts.
     Medley had suggested they work up a version of “Walking the Dog,” Rufus Thomas’ 1963 R&B classic. An impressive list of rockers covered it over the years; Aerosmith’s 1972 version, from the band’s debut, might be best known. Others include the Rolling Stones, The Sonics, Mitch Ryder, Everly Brothers, Flamin’ Groovies, John Cale, and Green Day.
     In the rehearsal hall, Zaner exhibits her reluctance more through body language than words. Raging Fire had never recorded a cover song, although a provocative version of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” became a concert favorite in the 1980s. Medley wanted to mine the same territory by recording a familiar rock tune steeped in sexual machismo. He likes the way the phallic symbolism of the lyrics assumed a different meaning coming from Zaner, whose voice can go from a fragile whisper to a confrontational snarl.
     “I like how it messes with stereotypes, because it’s obviously meant to come from a guy,” Medley says later. “Melora is so good at turning songs like that on their head and making it something unexpected.”
     For this weekend rehearsal, the band consists of Zaner, Medley, bassist John Reed, keyboardist Giles Reaves on a Hammond B-3, and guitarists Joe Blanton and Jeff Cease. The guitarists, both friends of the late Raging Fire founder and guitarist Michael Godsey, played on the lone newly recorded song added to the band’s comprehensive career compilation, Everything Is Roses: 1985–1989. They also joined the band for reunion performances in 2015 at the Exit/In and Grimey’s record store.
     “Michael Godsey is the reason I am a guitar player,” Cease says. High school friends, Godsey would invite Cease over, put on albums by the Who and pick up his guitar and play Pete Townsend’s parts. Those experiences set Cease on his life’s course. “He was so cool, and it made me want to be that cool, too.”
     Cease carried that inspiration to great heights. He has played in several notable local bands, including Rumble Circus, before becoming a member of The Black Crowes at the start (and peak) of their recording career. In recent years, Cease injects a rock crunch into country star Eric Church’s band.
     Initially calling themselves Ring of Fire, until they ran into trademark issues, Raging Fire’s founding lineup featured Zaner, Godsey, Medley, and bassist Les Shields, now an attorney in Florida. After Shields left in 1985, the bass slot would change every year or two. It included the late Lee A. Carr, Reed, and Rusty Watkins. Shields, Reed, and Watkins appear on different tracks of Raging Fire’s new album, These Teeth Are Sharp, named after a song Shields wrote that the band performed for a couple of years, but never recorded.
     The new album was cut in three days stretched over three months. Zaner flew in from New York one weekend a month, arriving in time for Friday night rehearsals. They recorded on Saturday. Shields traveled to town for the first session. Reed played on the second session, Watkins the third.
     Back at rehearsal, Zaner openly shows her reluctance toward “Walking the Dog;” Medley presses her, and she begrudgingly relents. The band blasts into a high-speed version, reminiscent of Aerosmith. Zaner gives it a try, but never connects with the lyrics. The band discusses ways to rearrange it to suit her. Blanton plays the chord structure slower, with more menace, and Reed slips in with a haunting bass part. Medley hears something he likes. “That reminds me of the Doors,” he says. “Let’s try it slow like that.”
     At that moment, Jeff Cease enters the discussion with a lean, mystical guitar progression, bluesy and dangerous, reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” “Yes, yes, that!” Medley crows. Zaner voices her approval. In a few minutes, each member finds their part around Cease’s lead. The steamy groove reeks with late-night atmosphere.
     “I really didn’t want to do it,” Zaner admits later. “But once Jeff came up with that lick, I could hear it in a different way. I love Billie Holiday. I’ve always been attracted to female singers who don’t have these big, rangy voices, but are so expressive and emotional. I started hearing her in my head, how Billie would do it. I like exploring that part of my voice, and I don’t get to do that a lot in this band. I’m so glad we stuck with it.”
     A few weeks later, sitting on the back deck of Medley’s East Nashville home, the drummer notes that the band’s best material came from following such left turns. “That is so typical of how Raging Fire works,” Medley says. “So often we’ll start one place and end up in another. We’ll disagree and someone will say this isn’t working. But we press on and most of the time end up with a song that sounds like us.”
     Adds Reed: “That’s one thing I love about this band. No one holds back, everyone voices an opinion, and it’s taken as a positive thing. It’s very creative and in the moment. You have to be on your toes, and it keeps you engaged in what’s going on in a very real way. I love hearing it all come together and being a part of that kind of process.”
     Part of the looseness, or lack of tension, comes because the stakes aren’t as big now. They aren’t youngsters chasing dreams anymore; they aren’t looking for that magical record deal. Live, Raging Fire always drew fervent fans, and the band was taken aback by how passionately people responded to last year’s performances and the Everything Is Roses compilation (available on vinyl LP, CD, as a download, and on streaming services).
     “It might sound corny, but now we’re just in it for the love of the music and for each other,” Shields says. “Back in the day, we were young and had big goals and lots of life conflicts, like you do at that age. We don’t have expectations with this record. We felt like we have some unfinished business. We want people to hear these songs, most of which come from back in the day. But there’s no end game. This isn’t our life now. But man, it sure feels good to get together and rock out again.”
     The motivation to record new tracks came from what the band felt was missing from the compilation. Several songs they performed or recorded were lost, or only existed in inferior versions — a live take lifted from a VHS, for instance. Some songs they’d half-forgotten until hearing demos and wondered why they hadn’t recorded them. Some songs they thought sounded better with the arrangements they worked up in 2015 than they had 30 years ago.

That said, it’s important to point out that no one in Nashville sounded like Raging Fire, then or now. Zaner was one of the few female vocalists involved in the local punk scene. She also was the only member of a local punk band with a Vanderbilt degree in English literature and philosophy. Godsey and Medley were old friends, having grown up together. All three guys played in incarnations of pioneering Nashville punk bands. But Zaner’s voice and songwriting led them in a distinctly new direction.
     In the early 1980s, Jason & the Scorchers were exploding on the national scene by blending punk rock with country music. In their wake, a score of brash indie-rock bands surfaced. There were colorful roots-rock acts (Walk the West, Webb Wilder & the Beatnecks, the Dusters); there were power pop bands (the Questionnaires, Practical Stylists, In Pursuit, Bill Lloyd & the December Boys) that merged Music City craft with youthful verve; and there were longhaired, power-chord thrashers (Royal Court of China, Shadow 15, Guilt) who brought a Southern sensibility to metal thunder.
     Raging Fire stood alone amid the noise. The Scorchers merged the Sex Pistols with Hank Williams; Raging Fire brought together The Clash with Tennessee Williams. They drew from such influences as The Who, Led Zeppelin, X, and The Cramps. Zaner’s literate, complex lyrics (influenced by Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor) and her mix of aggressiveness and fragility gave the band a style of its own.
     The singer offered the rare spectacle of a petite, yet powerfully present, female in a male-dominated music scene. Their shows were different in another way, too: They were among the only bands on the local underground club scene, along with Walk the West and White Animals, that drew as many women as men to their shows.
     The band gave up nothing when it came to force and fury; the power chords of “Everything Is Roses” and “Knee Jerk Response” matched the sonic rage of any leather-clad peers. Yet Zaner came on as a mix of Blanche Dubois and Scarlett O’Hara, a delicate creature with a strong core who proved a match for the Stanley Kowalskis and Rhett Butlers pounding away around her.
     The psychological conflicts and layers of emotions in the lyrics of “A Family Thing” and “The Morning in Her” represented a generation of young women dealing with the combustible cocktail of sexual freedom, contradictory desires, and the aggressive misogyny that snaked through punk culture in the 1980s. As with every generation, standing at the forefront of change was both exhilarating and shattering, and Raging Fire’s songs conveyed all the excitement, confusion, and anger of what it felt like to do battle on the front lines.
     Other members also developed unique styles. Godsey drew on Pete Townsend’s style of single-note melodicism and violent barre chords, while adding a dash of Steve Jones belligerence and George Harrison tenderness; Medley played drums like he was pummeling an enemy, in the manner of Bonham and Moon, serving as a lead instrument as much as Godsey’s guitar; and Shields (and the series of bassists who replaced him) set down a thumping, flexible foundation while having to alertly follow the challenging arrangements.
     This distinctive sound wasn’t an accident. “The first night I met Michael, at a party, we started talking about music,” Zaner said in interviews for the liner notes of Everything Is Roses. “He listened to songs I’d written for a band I was in (Color Flag). He said I should form a new band with him and Mark and Les. I told him I’m not a punk singer; I don’t scream. I identified with punk music, I just didn’t sing that way.”
     Godsey didn’t back off, and Zaner started to understand his vision. “We knew we were on to something new,” she said. “We wanted to combine storytelling with the punk music we loved. We wanted to bring in blues and pop melodies. I don’t have a big voice, but I thought I could be a stylist and maybe do something interesting. I thought of Patti Smith, one of my heroes, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and X and Blondie, but also Billie Holiday and Little Esther. I thought there was something valid there, and we could do it in our own way, by being young and Southern and having our own stories to tell.”
     As Medley recalls, the men in the band started in the loud-and-brash camp where everyone turned the amps up to 11 and let it rip. Godsey and Medley had played in Nashville’s first successful hardcore band, CPS (or the Committee for Public Safety). They had toured, playing Washington, D.C. (where members of Minor Threat were in the audience), and other East Coast cities. Shields had been lead singer for The Ratz, another pioneering Nashville punk band.
     The four immediately gelled. “Michael was so inspired by Melora’s lyrics, and he started creating all these midsong changes to heighten the drama,” Medley recalls. “It wasn’t the usual song structure. Michael kept tinkering with the arrangements and doing these complicated turnarounds. It was hard to play, frankly, but that was part of the fun. It made us play better, and that inspired us even more.”
     Rick Champion, a local music scene honcho in the ’80s who had opened Nashville’s first underground rock club, Phrank ‘n’ Steins, recognized the band’s potential and signed on as manager. Thanks to Champion, and booking agent Glenn Hunter, Ring of Fire’s third show was opening for The Cramps in Chicago. Their first show as Raging Fire was opening for The Gun Club, a significant LA act and another influence on the band’s bluesy, seductive sound.
     Raging Fire drew fervent audiences in their hometown and beyond. They toured the Southeast and Midwest constantly, occasionally venturing up the East Coast for gigs in New York and Boston. “We were very dedicated and worked so hard,” Zaner says. “We were committed 100 percent. We rehearsed at least three times a week, more if there was a show. It was our life.”
     The band’s initial EP, 1985’s A Family Thing, drew raves across America. “A band so determined to stake out its own turf is a band to watch,” wrote esteemed music critic Don McLeese, in the Chicago Sun-Times. The Raging Fire song “Everything Is Roses” opened City Without a Subway, a compilation album benefitting Vanderbilt University’s WRVU radio station; the album remains the best time capsule of Nashville rock at the time. Later, after Raging Fire’s 1986 full-length album, Faith That Dreams Are Made Of, the band was featured, along with the Pixies and other new acts, on the College Music Journal compilation Ten of a Kind. In 1987, Raging Fire was voted “Best Unsigned Band” in a CMJ reader’s poll.
     Record companies took notice. However, as Champion recalls, some A&R executives wanted to develop Zaner as a solo act. Other talent scouts loved the band, but didn’t know how to market their unusual style; many said they had trouble selling a punk band with a female singer. One top major label A&R executive promised to sign the band, only to have the deal killed by a senior executive who had never seen the group.
     The band continued to record new demos while meeting an endless line of record executives, producers, song publishers, attorneys, etc. Praise was always extravagant, and promises were always left unfulfilled. “They came so close so many times,” Champion says. “There was always some catch. It got very frustrating.”
     Medley recalls how momentum built quickly and then remained stuck at the same plateau for years. The band felt the music kept getting better, but their relationship with the music industry grew more exasperating. “I couldn’t see myself riding in a van playing clubs at age 30 — even though I was only 24,” Medley says.

Medley left the band, and when Godsey gained admittance to the Parsons New School of Design in New York, the band tossed in the towel. Godsey and Zaner had become a couple. They moved to New York and set music aside. “It really hurt to leave the band,” Zaner says. “I went through a big depression and didn’t play music for five years.”
     Medley went on to play drums in other Nashville club bands while taking jobs as a museum curator. Godsey and Zaner eventually began writing songs again. They worked on music in New York, and later in Seattle, after Zaner became a top graphic design executive with Microsoft. The software company eventually put her in charge of design at a new office in Shanghai, China, where she and Godsey started a label, recording their own music and that of young Chinese rockers.
     Shortly after the band dissolved, the distinctive sound they developed began garnering attention in the hands of others. The grunge of Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, and the Riot Grrl sound of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, all drew on the raw music and sensitive storytelling that had been Raging Fire’s territory.
     “I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if we’d stuck it out for another year or two,” Medley says. “The sound everyone said they didn’t know how to market suddenly became one of the most popular styles in the world.”
     Zaner is back living in New York City, where she is a top executive developing and designing digital apps for J.P. Morgan Chase. Twenty-five years ago, she noticed how music moved in their direction, too. “I kept having people tell me they thought they heard us on the radio,” she says. “It turned out to be bands that sounded like us. To me, it said we were onto something. I look back at it all very fondly. We were such a family together, and we were so passionate and so committed.”
     In the quarter century since the band ended, the core members found other routes to success. “We all followed our passions — that was something I think we took from working in Raging Fire,” Zaner says. “We all moved on, but we still had that fire in us. There are things I wished had turned out differently, but I have no regrets.”
     Zaner and Medley both say they feel Godsey’s presence, especially on stage and in the studio. They imagine how he’d respond to the new songs, and how excited he would have been to get the band back together, something he repeatedly brought up before dying of an unexpected heart attack in Shanghai in 2012.
     “There’s a certain cathartic aspect of all this,” Zaner says. In the year after Godsey’s death, she thought she could never return to Nashville and never would perform music again. “Michael was always a part of everything I did. We were such catalysts for each other.”
     But when Medley raised the idea of the compilation project, and when Zaner heard some unreleased recordings she thought were lost to history, she came around. “I’m so glad I did,” she says. “It feels like it’s come full circle. I won’t say it isn’t sometimes hard. My feelings are so complicated about it all. But when I’m with the band, and I’m singing, it feels like home.”

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