From Soapbox Cars to River Trails
The reach of Bragg Jam goes beyond its music.
By Leila Regan-Porter, with additional reporting by Brandon Bish and Chandler Price
Photography by Jessica Whitley and Christopher Smith
Most Middle Georgia folks know Bragg Jam for its concert crawl, which brings thousands of people to see a smorgasbord of incredible live music in downtown Macon. Some also know the story of Tate and Brax Bragg, the brothers for whom the festival is named, who both tragically lost their lives in a car accident in 1999.
But few know the deeper connections the nonprofit organization that is Bragg Jam has with the Macon community, and how important giving back is for the volunteer board who run the festival and all its other community events, like the free monthly Second Sunday concerts.
“Second Sunday began as a placemaking initiative of the College Hill Corridor project in 2009 as an opportunity to bring the community together and revive a rich tradition of musicians offering free performances in Macon’s public parks,” said J.R. Olive, Bragg Jam’s entertainment chair. “The concert series quickly grew in attendance and caliber of talent with acts such as Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Clarence Carter and Percy Sledge taking the stage. Bragg Jam took over production of Second Sunday in 2015 and continues to grow the beloved community tradition today.”
Bragg Jam also acts as the umbrella organization for events like Magnolia Soap Box Derby.
“There was a time when the Magnolia Soap Box Derby was by definition, grassroots. Bragg Jam started grassroots and blossomed into a more solid event with a strong innate community force that is undeniable,” said Koryn Young, former Bragg Jam vice president and Magnolia Soap Box Derby committee member. “I will always be grateful that Bragg Jam and Everett Verner saw the need in housing the Magnolia Soap Box Derby within the 501c3.
“You cannot teach enthusiasm, and both boards emulate a strong sense of community and positive vibes within the community. While a race down a hill doesn’t naturally pair with a music festival, the two have one thing in common: do good stuff for where we live and be awesome.”
The derby, much like Second Sunday, started as a community event created by a group of local individuals with a vision for a fun, vibrant downtown.
“This event is now a sustainable annual event because of the help of Bragg Jam, its board of directors, and the resources and support provided by the Macon community,” said Kaitlynn Kressin, VIP chair of Bragg Jam and Magnolia Soap Box Derby committee member.
Current of connection
The festival has had especially strong ties with the Ocmulgee River and the public spaces that have blossomed around it, including Amerson River Park, where the Bragg Jam Canoe Take Out now resides.
“The partnership with the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail goes back to the inception of Bragg Jam. Bringing people together for music and increasing the usability of the river were important ways to honor the Bragg brothers’ love of both. For many years, 100 percent of the proceeds went to the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, and the canoe launch is consistent with that original concept,” said Brian Adams, past Bragg Jam board member and president of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative.
Bragg Jam’s most recent donations helped to construct the south river access at Amerson, allowing thousands of people every summer to tube along the river.
“Since the beginning of the festival, Bragg Jam has used proceeds of the event to build and enhance the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail, providing space for the next generation of Macon musicians to meet, exercise and get inspired,” said Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon.
Bragg Jam’s tie to the Ocmulgee River is no accidental thing. It’s a continuous reminder of Brax and Tate Bragg. Their mother, Julie Bragg, said the boys loved the river: “They grew up wandering behind their grandparents’ house on Delano Drive, in front of the water works, which is now Amerson park, and they also loved the old cemetery.”
During the winter of 1998, Julie Bragg said Chris Sheridan gave a presentation to the Vineville Garden Club, drumming up enthusiasm for a greenway along the river. She left the meeting with a brochure about the Ocmulgee Heritage Greenway.
“Then, when the boys died the next July, and we were filling out their obituaries, we thought of how donations to that fabulous future project could be a way to remember them in lieu of flowers,” she said.
“Twenty days later that first bittersweet concert was held at the Rookery. John Wood created and donated T-shirts to sell as some of the first donations for the greenway. The concert gate was donated, too. Tate’s young friends couldn’t go into the bar, so they sold shirts and handed out brochures on the sidewalk. Russell Walker organized that event and loads of artists played. The place was standing–room only all night long; the last Saturday in July, 1999.”
When Bragg Jam first started, it was a small group of friends grieving the loss of two brothers.
“Brax and Tate were brothers to each other, but they were also brothers to a community of friends who loved them,” said Russell K. Walker, one of the Bragg Jam founders. “Back then our lives were so intertwined that when we lost those boys, we, like the Bragg family, lost part of our family. Bragg Jam started as a way for our little community to hold on to family just a little longer. Now, the grieving has subsided. Now, we come together in celebration, and as the years go by, Bragg Jam caters to an ever-widening audience. But it is still a community – and Brax and Tate are still central figures.”
In September 1999, there was a groundbreaking for the greenway project and Sheridan’s group thanked Bragg Jam friends for helping put the word out for a project that would take many millions of dollars and years to complete. There’s been a connection ever since.
“Three years later, Russell and Kirby Griffin published a 383-page compilation of Brax’s writings in ‘The Bullet Proof Bible,’” Julie Bragg said. “We’d never read any writings – and there, on page 190, was a three-line poem Brax had written in his journal the fall of 1991, when he was 19 years old:
‘The old Ocmulgee’s not the scene but a great view nonetheless
If we laid cafes around her banks and strolled in fancy dress
We could turn the sludge-mud into beauty on her breast.’”
“Bragg Jam is about community. Music reels in the people but it’s really about keeping memories alive and the connection of people from all walks of life. It’s important to have a festival like this in place and the reason for its huge success boils down to the heart behind it all. Without the story of the Braggs’heartbeat, there would be no music and no festival.”
– Molly Stevens, Bragg Jam performer and contestant on NBC’s “The Voice”
“As the official music ambassador for Macon and a resident since I was 15 years old, I have seen the Macon music scene go through a lot of changes. To my mind, the most successful event we have in Macon that honors the past and prepares Macon’s music for the future is Bragg Jam. They also make sure to include bands from Macon and Middle Georgia so that the heart of the festival provides economic and publicity opportunities for the bands from this area that are working hard for our community and the music we all treasure.”
– Joey Stuckey, Bragg Jam performer and Macon-based producer and studio-owner
“Bragg Jam has been a big part of my life since 2009. It was the first festival I attended after moving to Macon and, even though I’ve headed north to the land of the Yankees, it keeps me coming back year after year. This summer will be my 10th Bragg Jam and I’m more excited than ever. The tunes, the food and the sweaty, joyous, celebratory coming together of so many different people can’t be beat. Watching Bragg Jam grow into the amazing and inclusive community event it is today has been such a delight, and the folks who work thanklessly and tirelessly throughout the year to bring it all together are some of my favorite humans on earth. July can’t come fast enough.”
– Melanie Bruchet, Mercer University graduate and long-time Bragg Jam supporter
“Mercer University for several years has been a stage sponsor and supporter of Bragg Jam because we share a common interest in the revitalization of downtown Macon. We also share a common interest in promoting a live music scene in Macon. It adds vitality to the community, making Macon a better place to live, work and play. Bragg Jam also attracts thousands of out-of-town visitors, which provides economic benefits to Macon. We look forward to working even closer with Bragg Jam to cultivate and promote local talent after Mercer Music at Capricorn opens in early 2020.”
– Larry Brumley, senior vice president for marketing communications and chief of staff at Mercer