10 years of Bragg Jam: From heartfelt tribute to huge event

pramati@macon.comJuly 24, 2009 

Julie Bragg looked at the faded photocopy of a picture that her husband, Jim, handed her. Her eyes welled up.

“I don’t think I’ve seen this one before,” she said.

The picture showed their late son, Brax, playing his acoustic guitar at Rose Hill Cemetery.

Brax and his brother, Taylor “Tate” Bragg, were killed in a car accident 10 years ago this month as they drove back to Macon from a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles.

Though the Braggs have come to grips with the death of their sons (the couple has two daughters as well), such a moment or memory can bring emotions to the fore.

This weekend, there will be plenty of memories with the return of Bragg Jam, the music festival that began as a tribute to the young men but has since grown into one of Macon’s biggest events of the year.

Forty bands will play at eight venues across Macon on Saturday night. The event also includes a 5K fun run held last weekend, a charity auction tonight and a kids arts and crafts festival Saturday along the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail.

The Braggs said they don’t mind that the focus of the festival has moved away from a tribute and gravitated toward the music.

“We kind of like it that way,” Julie Bragg said. “It’s moved past some of the beginnings.”

“It belongs to the community now,” Jim Bragg said.

BRAX AND TATE

Though Brax and Tate Bragg were born more than 10 years apart, they were very close, their parents said.

“It’s hard to describe them,” Julie Bragg said. “They were both very sweet and clean boys. They were both romantics.”

Though Brax, who was 28 when he died, was the one who had formed a band and spent his days writing songs and poems, Tate had become known as a talented classical guitarist.

Tate was 17 when he died, a rising senior at Mount de Sales Academy. He had indicated to his parents that he’d like to work outdoors as a landscape architect when he grew up.

“Taylor would like to build something,” Julie Bragg said. “He liked to do pottery. ... Brax was more of an intellectual.”

Russell Walker was one of Brax Bragg’s closest friends and remembers his joie de vivre, often convincing Walker to do crazy things.

“He was a man about town, a man of the world,” Walker said. “He was a good-spirited, kind-hearted guy. He was a thinker. He loved to have fun, loved wine, women and song. ... He had an ongoing commentary on the world that was unique and entertaining.”

Once, Walker was taking a philosophy class at Mercer University from a professor named Tom Trimble, who was from New Orleans. Brax Bragg convinced Walker to skip class and head to New Orleans for Mardi Gras — on the day of the final exam.

“He convinced me that Tom Trimble would skip the class and go himself,” Walker recalled with a laugh.

Trimble did scold Walker when he returned — but he allowed him to take the final.

“At the time, I was real nervous,” Walker said. “Now, I think it’s the best thing I ever did. (Brax) convinced me that life was bigger than a philosophy class or an exam.”

His death convinced Walker to go to law school, he said.

“It was kind of, ‘If you don’t do it, you’ll always regret it,’ ’’ Walker said. “That was (Brax’s) philosophy.”

Walker and another friend, Kirby Griffin, published a book of Brax Bragg’s songs and poems.

“(Brax) was a Renaissance man,” Griffin said. “He was almost a throwback to someone like the Romantic poets, like (Lord George Gordon) Byron or (Percy Bysshe) Shelley or (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge. He lived life to the extreme.”

Despite their age difference, Tate Bragg began hanging out with his brother’s crowd, Walker said.

“Tate was becoming a contemporary of ours,” he said. “He was smart. He was a good musician. He was cool.”

One way the family remembers the two is with a memorial garden maze on the grounds of their home. The maze, designed with rocks from all over the country in concentric circles, isn’t just a memorial to the brothers, but to children born in Macon who have died tragically.

“It’s a sacred garden,” Julie Bragg said. “It’s a symbol of life.”

She noted that to view the maze from above — the brothers’ perspective — is to see a perfect path. But walking along the path, there are stumbling blocks such as roots and rocks.

“It’s a good analogy for life,” she said. “You can walk along and fall flat on your face.”

THE FESTIVAL

Ten years ago, Brax Bragg was scheduled to play a gig in Macon at the Rookery with his new band, The Buckleys.

After the accident, his friends still got together and put on a show as a memorial to the brothers.

“You couldn’t get in,” Julie Bragg recalled. “It was a small effort, but it was huge. There were handwritten signs all around town.”

There was no expectation early on that Bragg Jam — coined by a member of the band Moonshine Still, Jim Bragg said — would ever grow into anything more than just a gathering of the brothers’ friends.

“For four years, it was only a small get-together,” Jim Bragg said. “It’s only been citywide the last few years.”

When former festival president John Harrison took over the event in 2003, it became the event that people know today, Julie Bragg said.

She credited NewTown Macon for sticking with the festival, even though it cost more money than it was making back in those days.

“NewTown Macon was very encouraging and very indulgent,” she said.

Mike Ford, NewTown’s president and CEO, said the organization wasn’t suited to running Bragg Jam, and things have run more smoothly since the festival’s board of directors was created.

“People forget that we lost $40,000 the first year we tried to run it,” Ford said. “The new group that is putting it on today is doing a much better job. It’s a wonderful event for downtown Macon.”

The festival was scaled back in 2007, and that move helped generate profits and raise money for the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, one of the festival’s original goals. Bragg Jam raised $30,000 for the trail that year and a record $45,000 for it last year. Two other causes were added this year.

The festival recently had to convince Macon City Council to pass an ordinance that allows people to drink alcohol outdoors during the “pub crawl.” Brad Evans, the festival’s president, said it was a major frustration for the board to have to wait until the week of the festival to find out whether the measure would pass — and it did.

“It stressed us out, but it didn’t put us behind,” he said. “It’s been a little disheartening, that’s for sure.”

Evans said he and other board members hope the public remembers that alcohol and the pub crawl are just one aspect of the festival.

“That was one concern of ours,” he said. “It’s such a small part of Bragg Jam. Some of the venues don’t have alcohol, but most do. ... It’s about building a music community.”

LEAVING A LEGACY

The Braggs said they believe the boys would have loved to have been a part of the festival held in their name.

After a decade, time has healed many of the wounds from the early gatherings.

The difficult part, Julie Bragg said, is when some of the boys’ old friends come back to Macon for the festival. Seeing some of Tate’s friends all grown up, with families of their own, is a reminder of how much he missed out on.

“But we don’t (dwell) on it,” she said. “We’re happy for the joy in their lives.”

She said the festival keeps the memory of the brothers alive, giving the Braggs something that other families in a similar situation might not have.

“There are other parents who have lost children who don’t get anything back,” she said. “We’re so lucky. ... We’re still able to have our own lives. That’s the shocking part — you don’t think you’ll be able to have a life after that.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report.

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