The guy who made a name for himself as one of world’s most colorful front men, a Whirling Dervish in buckskin fringe, a man who liberally mixes hillbilly sensibilities with punk-rock aggression, sits back in his hotel room in the UK.
Jason Ringenberg, the Jason in the legendary outfit Jason & The Scorchers (and family friendly Farmer Jason in his “calmer” times) is pondering the news about his one-time drummer, harmonizer, sidekick, co-writer. Perry Baggs is dead.
“Perry had a magic, elfin-like personality that drew people to him,” says Jason. “There would have been no band without Perry. Period.”
It’s about 5 a.m. in the UK.
Probably the same time he and his friend, Perry Baggs, would sometimes find their muse to fashion some of what came to be called “cowpunk” music, but was really just music. From two hearts.
“White Lies” and “If Money Talks” may well have been formulated at this time of day … late night, really, at day’s end. After a show. As the adrenaline wears off. Before pulling the blinds and resting up for the next night.
Back when Perry Baggs was alive.
Perry, 50, a friend of this writer and so many people, a damn nice guy, was alone when he died in his Goodlettsville home Thursday.
His beloved Katrina Cornwell and friends from his church missed him. Perry, the longtime rock ‘n’ roll hero, never skipped church. Well, at least not in his non-Scorching years. Sure, he may have joked he was a “#&%*ing Christian” … but that counts too, you know. Or at least so they say.
While drums were his claim to fame as a Scorcher, bass was more his thing in church.
When police went to do a well-check, they found Perry’s body. Renal failure and diabetes had taken their final tolls on this vibrant “elfin” fellow.
Just a kid really when he climbed with Jason, guitarist Warner Hodges and bassist Jeff Johnson – the best of the Scorchers’ lineups – to within eyeshot of superstardom about 30 years ago.
Didn’t really make it past under-appreciated legend status. Occasional breakups and regroups with sometimes different personnel resulted.
But the churning, pounding heart of the Scorchers was fashioned not just by Perry on drums but by the songs he and Jason wrote together. My friend Andy McLenon compares them to Richards and Jagger, with less success, but as much soul. The Glimmer Twins are pushing 70 though and talking about playing the world for what may be the last time. Perry fell far short.
No one really was surprised that the ailments finally got Perry, I guess. At the same time we all were surprised. Doesn’t make sense, does it?
He was only 50. To be truthful, my own friendship with Perry had more to do with my former career in daily newspapering, before, well … you’ve all read that story. Anyway, my years there ended about five years ago.
In fact, Perry had a lot to do with my hiring music writer Peter Cooper, who remains one of my dearest friends. When Peter came to interview for a job as a music writer at the daily newspaper, he stopped and looked at the guy in the library. “Gee, Mr. Ghianni,” he said, his aw-shucks Spartanburg, South Carolina, charm in perfect order. “That’s Perry Baggs of Jason & The Scorchers…. Working in the library? Please hire me, Mr. Ghianni... please.... please.....”
Actually, it was a little more straightforward than that. Peter called me “Tim” as I insisted and I’d already decided to hire him. But having Perry – drummer for Peter’s all-time favorite rock band -- in the library didn’t hurt.
Perry’s layoff from his job as an “archivist” at the daily newspaper came a little later. By the way, back when newspapers really mattered, archivists were called librarians and the archives themselves were called morgue files.
Anyone ever try to get health insurance on their own with pre-existing conditions like renal failure and diabetes?
Medical bills kept piling up and Perry kept dreaming of new songs, old friends and his own peculiarly rockin’ high lonesome harmonies that were essential to Jason & The Scorchers at their damned best.
Right now, Katrina is trying to see if Perry qualifies for Metro Social Services indigent burial. Meantime, she is rallying people to contribute to his Pay Pal account at firstname.lastname@example.org. His desire, Katrina says, is to be buried next to his mother at Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens.
She’s also floating ideas out there for perhaps a fund-raising concert. Or some such tribute.
Jason is aware of this as he sits in his room. I tried to contact him the day Perry died, but he sent a note. He was in the UK and his hours were crosswise. “Of course I’d like to talk with you about Perry,” he said in a note, encouraging an exchange at a better hour .
“Warner brought Perry into the band the fall of ’81,” says Jason. “At the time we were using Barry Felts on drums and he quit. Perry came to my house to jam with us. From the first measure of ‘Gone Gone Gone,’ an old Carl Perkins song, we took off on, I knew Perry was the missing piece.”
It wasn’t just the drums but the spirit of the little guy who Hodges treated like a little brother needing protecting and nurturing.
“Perry’s impact on the band is incalculable,” says Jason. “He wrote some of our best songs, played drums, sang harmonies and was a huge part of the arrangements of the songs. There would have been no band without Perry. Period.
“I actually think of Perry more as a great all-around musician rather than a great drummer, although he was that as well,” Jason continues. “Perry was a volcano of ideas. The job when writing with Perry was mostly as an editor. His creativity drove the sessions.”
And Jason missed him when the band began to fracture. Or when it fractured. At different times. For different reasons. Perry missed Jason. And Warner, too.
“Me and Perry were quite close in the ‘80s and ‘90s, both as music colleagues and friends,” says Farmer Jason. “The last 10 years we drifted apart, although there was never any serious breakup. He left the band in 2002 to go solo. I respected that and supported him the best I could.”
Perry and Jason did get back together, though. For a fund-raiser for the ailing drummer and again for an Americana Music Awards tribute. Perry knew he was dying at the time. He said he’d just as soon die playing with Jason & The Scorchers as die quietly. There was nothing really quiet about the guy.
Ever hear him laugh?
“The last shows with Perry will always stick in my mind. We all knew how hard it was for him to play drums like that with his poor health,” remembers Jason. Actually, when the Scorchers put together their latest album, “Halcyon Times,” Perry joined them. Too weak for the drums. But “he sang those brilliant harmonies on four of the tracks. It was a wonderful experience to be with him again.”
It also was the last time Jason saw his old running mate.
“I will always consider Perry one of the most naturally gifted music people I have ever known,” says Jason, from his UK room.
Sure, there was a little “acrimony” at times but “all bands have that.” All brothers, too.
“I spent 25 years with Perry. We had our good times and our bad ones. However, I count myself a fortunate man to have made music with him.”
Like he said: “There would have been no band without Perry. Period.”