You cannot convince me to stand in the middle of a fairground during the summer months in Georgia for a music festival. I do not have and will never have the mental or physical wherewithal to sweat to death in the Southern heat for eight hours to catch four sets from musicians I’m largely indifferent to. It could be Jack White, Jenny Lewis, Jay-Z or the ghost of Jay Reatard for all I care—I will gladly stay home and wait it out until their next club tour.
So the idea of a club crawl-style music festival is almost pornographic, reaping the benefits of a music festival—taking in a wide array of music as you jump from act-to-act in different pavilions and stages, eating and drinking into a merry oblivion—from the inside of air-conditioned venue spaces sounds like something out of a daydream.
Bragg Jam in Macon, Ga. is one of the many concert crawls creeping through college towns and downtown metro areas each summer, and it’s the absolute crown jewel of the city’s annual calendar. What’s distinctive about Bragg Jam is it’s largely a locals-only music festival, though it expands each year and some of the larger acts draw in people from neighboring cities and states. At its core, it’s just a bunch of locals—rough-riding, Tevas and Oakley-wearing North and Central Georgians with one foot in the darkness and the other in a cowboy boot.
That’s an exaggeration, clearly, but what’s striking about the festival is that its crowd is remarkably diverse (as compared to another festival like Bonnaroo, which largely draws out a specific type of person). The same venue space shared by leather-toting bikers and long-haired Phish fans holds hoards of cute sorority girls, day-drunk Georgia tailgaters, moms out on the town and mall goths.
During my first time at Bragg Jam, I found this local mentality to be a central tenet of the festival, which was first organized 21 years ago as a way to honor the lives of Macon-based musicians Brax and Tate Bragg, who were both killed in a car accident in 1999. For the most part, the lineup is comprised of local acts: Alabama-based Anderson East and Muscadine Bloodline and Athens-based Of Montreal and FUTUREBIRDS headlined the festival, with smaller acts from southern circuits of The Voice and local mainstays acting as the backbone for the rest of the festival.
Not every act on the two-day lineup is a shiny new thing or an undiscovered megastar—there are a lot of crooners with acoustic guitars and mail-order bearded alt-country bands, but enough bands, musicians and trumpeted supergroups are offered for you to find something to enjoy. It seems like festival organizers were pushing for its 2019 lineup to be its most diverse and inclusive yet—this year featured the glam-pop/psych-pomp (and Paste favorite) Of Montreal as one of its headliners and the inaugural Dragg Jam drag show extravaganza. This was also the first year that organizers partnered with restaurants to offer special deals or later hours for festival attendees, which was a better idea in theory than in practice—I still ended up paying $13 for a burger.
Friday’s slate began with some intimate sets from Bragg Jam regulars and past The Voice contestants Maggie Renfroe and Molly Stevens over at the Capitol, both of which were short and sweet and a smaller encapsulation of the country music scene for which the town is known for. From there, I caught the first half of The Orange Constant’s set over at Grant’s Lounge, a longhaired and shit-kicking Athens-based jam band whose hypnotic set was punctured by slinky, scuzzing synths and blindingly loud drumming (and soundtracked whatever wrestling competition was on the television above the bar).
Back at the Capitol, I took in the second half of Jared & The Mill’s anthemic alt-country set as I anticipated Of Montreal’s closing headlining performance, which was as bonkers as I’d hoped. There is just something so infectiously fun about every set Kevin Barnes puts together, from the avant-garde Chinese dragon set pieces and background dancers in drag, down to the sprightly musician himself. Contrary to what I expected of the audience, the congregated Maconites completely dug his performance. I assumed Barnes might’ve been a little too avant-garde for the city where the Allman Brothers hail from, but that was apparently not the case—hula-hoopers and loopy couples twirling around each other were abound.
I began the second and best-attended day of the festival with a stop at Hummingbird to catch the Atlanta-based electric violin rock-pomp outfit ZALE’s set. A highlight of Saturday’s lineup ended up being the smaller acts filling out Hummingbird and the Bearfoot Tavern Beer Garden, the latter of which spotlit the Charleston lollipop-pop outfit Babe Club (whose frontwoman Jenna Desmond’s vocals and shy quips were magic), weird-ass hip-hop duo Little Stranger and Nashville-based reggae-rock outfit Roots of Rebellion.
At the Capitol, rootsy Americana veterans American Aquarium delivered a Springsteen-esque and pedal steel guitar-heavy set and bled into the festival’s chief headliner Anderson East, a Tennessee southern soul transplant with a strong set of pipes and a talent for commanding a stage. I sacrificed FUTUREBIRDS’ headlining slot to end my night at Dragg Jam at Late Nite, which didn’t draw as much of a diverse crowd as I hoped it would (no Oakley sunglasses in sight). Still, it was a thoughtful attempt to increase visibility for the city’s rich LGBTQ+ community, and the show ended up being a well-attended and explosive affair helmed by Charlotte-based vanity drag performer Erica Chanel.
Bragg Jam is a funky, unifying thing—a festival for the locals with the gusto of an event as large and widespread as Shaky Knees or Bonnaroo. Macon is a quieter industrial city in Middle Georgia, yes, but it’s steeped in Southern rock and blues history, and the festival demonstrates just that—that there exists a zealous hotbed of musicians hidden away in the suburbs, sprawling farms and downtown bars beyond Target plazas and shopping malls, a cluster of hot-headed creatives just looking to play their hearts out to a crowd of pure-hearted music fans for the thrill of it.