Thursday, July 12, 2012

Please bang the drum slowly for Jesus' (and Scorchers') beloved cowpunk percussion wizard

Bang the drum slowly….
One of the greatest drummers in rock ‘n’ roll history is gone, his frail and battered body apparently finally giving out on him.
To be fair I didn’t know Perry Baggs (or Baggz, as his rock ‘n’ roll persona was occasionally spelled) best as a drummer.
He was the librarian at The Tennessean who liked Van Halen and admired my Hawaiian shirts. He liked to talk about music and faith.
And he liked to laugh if I quoted Dylan, Kristofferson, Lennon, Jagger or George Jones.
Oh sure, I knew who he was and I loved his band, having first seen Jason & the Scorchers way back when they were a sensation, playing at Cat’s or Kat’s or whatever that record store was just below Vanderbilt.
My good pal, Michael Gray, a music expert, scholar and genuine nice guy who spends his work hours at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, tells me that show was “legendary. I’ve been hearing about it for 20 years.”
There are a few of us left, I guess, who actually were there.
Andy McLenon was there, of course. He's been about everywhere Nashville rock has been fashioned.
He and the late Jack Emerson and their Praxis International – a mighty big name operating out of a basement – pretty much took Jason & the Scorchers to the world.
“I don’t know why I’m shocked, but I am,” says Andy, when reflecting on the death of his old friend, who joined up with front man Jason Ringenberg, guitarist Warner Hodges and bassist Jeff Johnson in the first (and best) version of the outfit.
McLenon says he remembers Perry as nice “kid,” a 19-year-old, who auditioned for the band that for awhile had the proverbial “Next Big Thing” moniker written about it everywhere.
“He was a soulful little guy. He was really focused, really sweet, a joy to be around,” McLenon says, adding that the medication Baggs had to take “would affect his moods” and perhaps influence the tension that sometimes existed between him and the band.
“But I know those guys love him. Jeez, Warner was like his big brother and protector from the real world. Perry was very lovable. He just got confused about reality sometimes.”
Then McLenon, who is one of Nashville’s truest rock scholars, reminds us that Perry was not just a drummer (although that was plenty.)
  “If you look back and look at the songs he wrote early on. It’s interesting. He had this musical melody thing. “He was really melodic in his writing,” he says, remembering how “Jason would write the lyric and Perry would add the fetching melody on some of the great early songs like ‘White Lies’ and ‘Money Talks.’
“Jason wrote a lot by himself, but the ones that Perry was involved in tend to be the more catchy ones,” says Andy.
Then he draws a straight line between the Ringenberg-Baggs pairing and another little rock pairing of writing and singing partners.
“When you listen to Jagger and Richards, you know those are two guys whose vocals are not technically great, but when they are together with Richards making harmony …. Well, I loved when Perry would sing with Jason. It was very soulful and very distinctive and very melodic.”
One thing that many people probably don’t know is the country side of Baggs. No, not the raucous hillbilly rock (aka “cowpunk”) of the Scorchers – which has been honored with a display in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“One of the interesting things is that in the ‘80s, before it was cool to do such things, Perry created this alter-ego, Austin Taylor, who would record these really country demos, things like ‘If Heaven’s Just a Fairy Tale, Then What’s the Story Here.’
“He would sing it so intensely. Seriously, they were very strong vocals. Before the hipsters – and Perry was never a hipster – thought George Jones was cool, Perry Baggs instinctively knew he was and tried to emulate him in his alter-ego.”
He adds that Baggs, who was raised in the Southern Gospel tradition, never really left that.
Later in life, after fashioning different lineups of country-fried rock efforts, Perry found his truest calling in his church. “Perry never really had a rock ‘n’ roll heart,” says McLenon.
“He had a big heart.”
Tommy Womack, who admits his love of Jason & the Scorchers and that his own band, Government Cheese owed a debt to that group, today lamented the loss of his good friend.
“Perry was one of the best drummers in one of the best bands ever. His health issues in the second chapter of his life shouldn’t obscure that.
“He was one of the greats with a big heart and huge talent. I’m privileged not only to have seen him play many times, but to know him as a friend.”
My own encounters with Perry were less musical, as mentioned a few paragraphs above. Perry worked in The Tennessean library in my final decade in daily journalism.
Before I got too old… But that’s another story.
Perry not only was a devout consumer of my writing, he was a big fan of my Hawaiian shirt wardrobe and of my curly hair.
He liked to sit down by my desk and talk about everything from Van Halen to the Scorchers to God in either lightning manic speed or a slow tired drawl, depending on where his health was taking him that day.
He would describe his own musical dreams, his latest effort and, even though it was obvious his health wasn’t good, he would thank his God for all that he had and all that he had experienced.
Even in physical distress, with his rockstar dreams dimming if not dead, he didn’t complain.
Sometimes he’d talk about Jason & the Scorchers regrouping. He’d talk about getting together with his old mate to write “the best songs yet.”
Other times he’d talk about Jesus & the boys and their impact on his life.
 And he would give thanks. He had obviously found peace.
The Scorchers, of course, are regrouped and back out there playing.
  But Perry had to step away, about 10 years ago.
His body frail, though his spirit strong, he no longer stand those randomly long nights in a van and didn’t have the strength to sustain those marathon drumming sessions that helped punctuate the Whirling Dervish antics of the front man in the buckskin fringe or the churning and explosive guitar work of Warner Hodges.
Perry Baggs’ body was discovered by police when loved ones were worried because he didn’t show up in church at Scottsboro First Baptist Church the other day.
Katrina Cornwell, also a former colleague at The Tennessean, was the one who sounded the alarm.
“We were very special to each other,” she said.
“I loved him very much. I appreciated him for the larger-than-life individual that he was.”
Her concerns about Perry first showed up on Facebook a few hours ago, when she asked for prayers because she couldn’t get in touch with him.
“For our mutual friends, please pray for Perry. Neither my friend Kay at church nor I can get in touch with him. I am EXTREMELY concerned, and if I don't hear from him pretty soon, I will take action to make sure he is OK.”
Later she wrote me: “I was praying for him initially because he didn't come to church and wasn't answering phone calls or texts from me or other church members. We sent the police to do a welfare check, and they found him inside dead. I don't know the cause of death yet."
"The medical examiner is doing the autopsy this morning.”
Katrina wrote the following obituary for her beloved drummer and soul mate:
    Perry Armand Baggs III, 50, was born in Nashville March 22, 1962 to his parents, Perry Armand Baggs II and Betty Grace Baggs.
He was raised in the Sylvan Park area and went to Cohn High School. Perry's family attended Park Avenue Baptist Church during his childhood and adolescent years.
His mother and father were talented singers, who played a key role in the church's musical program. Perry has a daughter, Faith Elizabeth Baggs, El Paso Texas; three sisters, Grace, of Nashville, Kelly and Rachel, both of Knoxville; and several nephews.
When Perry was about 19 years old, he got an opportunity to audition as a drummer for the Nashville-based, country-punk band Jason and the Scorchers.
He spent the next 21 years as the band's percussionist. Jason and the Scorchers were on major record labels.
They had music videos on MTV and toured with some of the best in the business, notably REM and Bob Dylan. Jason and the Scorchers garnered critical acclaim in the early 1980s for its unique blending of the country and punk rock musical genres.
The critics loved the band, and in 2008, Jason and the Scorchers earned a lifetime achievement award for best musical performance at the Americana Music Awards, held at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Perry also worked as an archivist in the library of The Tennessean newspaper for 17 years before he was offered a buyout as part of a massive, company-wide reduction in staff at that time.
 He then sought disability because he had already been on dialysis for kidney failure for two years.
He began receiving a disability check within six months of the initial filing.
Since that time, he has been an active member of Scottsboro First Baptist Church.
For the past three years, Perry has been a dedicated soloist and bass player at church. For a few months, the church has been paying him to play bass. Before that, he donated his time. Perry's contribution to the Scottsboro First Baptist music program helped the worship services to come alive, to touch someone's heart for Christ.
Perry was kind, compassionate, funny, generous, loving and high-energy.
  He was someone who enjoyed life.
Perry loved home-cooked meals, movies, music, surfing big waves at the beach and to spend time with people he considered family: blood relatives, church members, friends and his significant other.
  Most of all, he loved God, and he lived his life for Jesus Christ every day.
Of course, that obituary is written from the perspective of a broken heart, of one who has loved deeply and whose loved one has died.
And as just an old freelance writer who sometimes enjoys music, I really can’t add much to that, other than to say that the young fellow with the country-flavored heart who climbed to the near-heights as a rock star is at peace.
Bang the drum slowly.


  1. Wonderful piece on Perry. He was an original cowpunk with a huge heart. He had many, many gifts and talents. If he had a flaw, it may have been his admiration for your Hawaiian shirts.