Raging Fire

Raging Fire

By Doyle Davis for the Nashville Scene, October 1, 2015

Raging Fire was a fiery band born from the original Nashville punk scene, Raging Fire featured three members from first-generation local punk bands — guitarist Michael Godsey and drummer Mark Medley from CPS (The Committee for Public Safety) and bassist/occasional lyricist Les Shields, former lead singer of The Ratz — plus fireplug vocalist Melora Zaner, a Vanderbilt student with a bent for Southern gothic storytelling and myth-making.

Zaner also brought a rare-for-the-times feminist perspective to the table. Musically, the band melded the roots-punk of X and The Gun Club, mixing in some Nashville twang with the power and complex arrangements of Led Zeppelin or The Who. Factor in Zaner's penchant for Patti Smith and Billie Holiday, and the result was a heady brew of hard-rocking nuggetry that exploded on the turntable.

Opportunity and momentum came quickly for Raging Fire. An opening slot for The Cramps in Chicago was their third-ever live show. The four-track EP A Family Thing arrived in 1985 to national critical acclaim, college radio airplay and (most importantly) good sales soon after. The record sold out its initial pressing. To capitalize on the attention, the band hit the road and crisscrossed the country spreading the gospel of Nashville rock. The future was looking bright for Raging Fire.

Penetrating the national consciousness was much harder in the mid-'80s. Those were the hardscrabble days of vinyl records, hand-printed zines, snail mail, land lines, constant touring schedules and college radio play — the only tools indie bands had to work with to get the word out. And Raging Fire worked the college-rock underground as hard as any band at the time. It paid off. In 1987, CMJ (College Music Journal) readers voted them one of America's best unsigned bands, along with some ham-and-eggers called the Pixies.

The vote landed them on a compilation released by RCA Records. Labels were interested, meetings were taken — but there was always a catch. Either the band's sound didn't fit the marketing formats of the day, or the label du jour was more interested in poaching their charismatic lead singer. Meanwhile, the relentless touring ground along while the band worked up new material that showed an increasingly mature, wide-ranging sound.

The band's debut full-length, Faith Love Was Made Of, came out in 1986. By then, founding member Shields had gone, replaced first by Lee Carr, then John Reed and finally Rusty Watkins on bass. Before he left, though, Shields contributed the stellar "Everything Is Roses" to the band's repertoire. Arguably Raging Fire's best song to date, it was the lead-off track on City Without a Subway — a highly collectible LP overview of Nashville's '80s rock scene released in 1985 by 91 Rock/WRVU, Vanderbilt's vital, now-defunct college radio station. [Full disclosure: I was a longtime DJ for 91 Rock and am currently co-owner of Grimey's New & Preloved Music, which will be selling the band's new compilation album.] Additional tracks landed on the CMJ compilation and a sampler from the Nashville Entertainment Association, the premier local music organization of its time.

By this time, Raging Fire had evolved into a formidable live act that could hold its own with any rock band of the day (local or international), adding Jerry Dale McFadden (now of The Mavericks) on keyboards. But while the band continued developing, onstage and in the studio, its career momentum did not. Without a record deal materializing, and under pressure from families to focus on education and career opportunities, burnout set in, and the band began falling apart. Drummer Medley was the next to leave in 1989, and when guitarist Michael Godsey was accepted into the Parsons New School of Design, he and Zaner (the two had become a couple) moved to New York. The Nashville Curse had struck again.

Raging Fire had the goods but not the luck or infrastructure to endure until success arrived. All the band hoped to achieve was enough financial success to continue making music and touring. But there were few models in the '80s for indie bands to thrive at that level. Sub Pop, Matador Records and the grunge and indie movements that would sustain them and the bands they signed were just a few years away.

"I like to think what might have happened if we'd given it another year or two," Medley tells the Scene. "The sound no one knew how to market suddenly became one of the most popular styles in the world."

Now, 25 years later, a much-needed anthology of Raging Fire's recordings has arrived to secure their legacy in the digital age. Everything Is Roses 1985-1989, due Oct. 6, is a collection of all the band's vital recordings, many of which are previously unreleased, some having been painstakingly mastered from dusty old cassettes. The vinyl packaging is stunning, with a lavish 12-page booklet full of notes, lyrics, photos, show fliers, etc., plus a 24-song download. And Raging Fire is preparing for their first live performance in 25 years — a one-night-only reunion show at Exit/In this Saturday.

Sadly, Michael Godsey died in 2012. But standing in for him are two contemporary scene veterans — Joe Blanton (a founding member of The Ratz, now in The Bluefields) and Jeff Cease (from Rumble Circus and the original lineup of The Black Crowes, now in Eric Church's band). Perhaps now, with the Nashville Curse lifted, the world is ready to embrace Raging Fire at last.

Benjamin Stranger

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RAGING FIRE
With special guest Benjamin Stranger


The High Watt
1 Cannery Row, Nashville, TN 37203
Saturday, September 29
Doors at 7, Music at 8pm
$10


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