It may seem hard to remember in this era of Nashville rock 'n' roll, but there was a time — before Those Darlins and JEFF the Brotherhood — when there were no Music City rock 'n' roll bands worth mentioning. In the early '80s, Nashville did sport The White Animals, a good rock group whose records stand up well today. But it's fair to say no band did more to bring the rock 'n' roll spirit to a town dominated by country producers and songwriters than Jason and the Scorchers. Led by frontman Jason Ringenberg, the original version of the band benefited from the guitar playing of Warner Hodges, the bass work of Jeff Johnson and the drumming of Perry Baggs. The band opened a barn door that looked out over not only country music, but on the insurgent punk rock that existed in locales far from a Nashville music industry that had no use for punk's energy and discontent.
Jason and the Scorchers went from their initial burst of inspiration to a more shadowed, complex future. For Ringenberg, this has meant remaking himself as both a punk-influenced, country-leaning singer and as Farmer Jason, whose work is intended for children. For Baggs, being a Scorcher seems to have been more complicated. In many ways, it's difficult to be a rock star, but it could be that leaving all that behind is far more vexing. That doesn't matter — Baggs was a first-rate musician, and he lived large.
Born in Nashville in 1962, Baggs grew up in West Nashville and attended Cohn High School. Baggs auditioned for the Scorchers in 1981, after the Illinois-born Ringenberg came to Nashville. The band released an EP, Restless Country Soul, and went to Memphis in 1982 to work with producer Jim Dickinson, who had made music that pointed the way toward the Scorchers' style with Alex Chilton's 1979 country-punk-rockabilly album, Like Flies on Sherbert.
Partly produced by Terry Manning, who had worked on the recording sessions for Big Star's first two albums, the Scorchers' 1983 EP, Fervor, established the band's reputation. Fervor featured new versions of the Sun recordings and songs reworked and remixed by Manning, including a version of Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie."
It seems even Dickinson was perplexed by the Scorchers' approach, due partially to Baggs' drumming style. As Hodges told reporter Michael McCall in 1996, "[Dickinson] told me that the biggest thing about the Scorchers was that we played shuffles, and Perry played them all in 4/4 time. Over the course of 15 years, that has come to make a lot of sense, because we do that all the time. That was what made us different."
Dickinson had a point. Being beholden to accepted ways of playing music is what has always made country music different from rock 'n' roll, and the Scorchers played rock their own way. The Scorchers proved their mastery of punk-influenced country rock on the Manning-produced full-length Lost and Found and in their supercharged live shows.
Diagnosed with diabetes during a 1990 tour, Baggs took a job at the Tennessean in his hometown. He worked in the newspaper's library and archives, and it appears that this period found him happy to be in a stable, non-rock situation. Meanwhile, the Scorchers disbanded. The band got back together for reunion tours in 1993 and 1994. Baggs left the band in 2002, and seemed intent on pursuing a solo career.
For whatever reasons, that career never materialized, and one wonders how Baggs felt when the Scorchers got back together a couple of years ago to make the full-length Halcyon Times without him, although Baggs did contribute some background vocals to the record. In 2008, Baggs performed with the Scorchers at the Ryman when the band received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association. Also in 2008, Baggs lost both his father and his Tennessean job, and continued to struggle with diabetes.
For all his apparent struggles in his last years, Baggs seems to have been a figure of rare energy and thoughtfulness — a seeker, you might say. And he was one of the finest drummers in punk-country history. As I said earlier, he lived large. Baggs died at 50 at his Goodlettsville home on Thursday, July 12.
To help fulfill Baggs' wishes of being buried beside his mother, Betty Grace Taylor, in Harpeth Hills Memory Gardens, friends and family have requested that interested parties make donations via PayPal to perrybaggs[at]yahoo[dot]com. Jason and the Scorchers will also play a benefit show for Baggs on Aug. 18 at Exit/In, and there will be a memorial service at Scottsboro First Baptist Church at 6 p.m. on Aug. 20.
Edd Hurt and the Nashville Scene would like to thank Tim Dempsey for help in researching this article