Several months after arriving in Nashville from Maine, Jay Bragg had blown through his savings, was driving for Uber and desperately needed a gig to keep his country music dream alive.

Bragg played in Maine with the bands This Way and North of Nashville and performed at venues such as Bull Feeney’s in Portland and The Rack at Sugarloaf. Photo courtesy of Melanie Fiander of Fiander Foto

Then, one day, he got a chance to do an 11 a.m. set at AJ’s Good Time Bar, owned by country music legend Alan Jackson, because somebody called in sick. Bragg knew he had to make himself stand out. He set up on stage with his guitar in hand, a harmonica around his neck, and his feet pushing pedals to bang a drum and jangle a tambourine.

“He was a one-man band up there. As a performer, he got your attention right away,” said Matt Harville, manager of AJ’s. “A lot of bands here in Nashville are just playing songs, like a jukebox. But he has the gift of showmanship.”

Three years later, Bragg has been working steadily, now as the house band at AJ’s with gigs at other clubs, and recording his original music, including the album “Honky Tonk Dream” in 2018. He’s about to take his career to the next level, opening for Jackson on tour in front of crowds of 10,000 or more, starting Friday in Madison, Wisconsin.

For Bragg, who began his career in Portland clubs like Bull Feeney’s and Brian Boru and played all over Maine for more than a decade, the chance to tour nationally with a country superstar is a dream come true.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to play on a big stage with the one of the biggest names in country music,” said Bragg, 38, whose real last name is Basiner. “I need to make the most of this chance.”

Bragg was well-known playing country, rock and roots music around Portland and across Maine between about 2004 and 2015. He performed for a while as J. Biddy, and was in the bands This Way and North of Nashville.

In 2018, while in Nashville, he released an album of mostly original music, “Honky Tonk Dream.” A reviewer for the online site Saving Country Music said Bragg’s story songs, old-timey vocal lilt and twangy sound is a must-listen for anyone who wants to hear country music “like it was.”

MUSIC BUSINESS FAMILY

Bragg grew up in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, in a musical family. His father, Richard Basiner, was born to parents who performed in vaudeville and has had a long career himself under the name Richie Bell, playing and singing in rock bands and gospel groups around Boston. Now, at 79, Bragg’s father lives in Florida and performs in nursing homes.

His mother, Jean Basiner, was a dance therapist, teaching dance for health, and she also worked with her husband’s bands, often doing sound engineering. While pregnant, she held earphones to her belly so that her son could hear his father’s gospel group.

Bragg’s parents had him take violin lessons when he was about 6, which he hated, his father said. Later, he took piano lessons, but Bragg didn’t want the lessons, just the piano.

“He was a natural, he could just play by ear without the lessons,” said Richard Basiner.

From a young age, Bragg remembers his father playing his guitar at home and teaching Bragg country songs, including Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and various songs by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Bragg said he looked forward to these “sing-alongs” with his father. Later, they recorded songs together.

As a very young boy, Bragg remembers his grandmother taking care of him and giving him pots and pans to bang on, for fun.

So it makes sense that, after trying violin and piano, Bragg took up drums, which he quickly became passionate about. He counts John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Ringo Starr of the Beatles among his musical heroes. He played drums in various groups through middle school and high school and got a drum scholarship to play in the jazz band at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. He majored in journalism and says that’s when his songwriting started to take off. He felt that writing a story for a newspaper or magazine was a lot like writing a song; it had to be clear and accessible, and hopefully, entertaining.

He didn’t think of music as a career in college. After college, he “followed a girl” to Portland around 2004 and started freelancing for various publications, including the Portland Phoenix. But freelancing didn’t pay much, so he began singing and playing guitar (which he had taught himself in college). He did country songs by Johnny Cash and folk-rock songs by Paul Simon or Crosby, Stills and Nash. In his early days in Portland, he performed under J. Biddy, biddy being a nickname since childhood due to his small stature a boy. (He uses Bragg as his stage name in Nashville because Basiner is invariably mispronounced and misspelled.)

Early on, he had a propensity for memorizing songs, so he could play vast amounts of requests in bars, including about 60 songs by Johnny Cash alone.

“Songs being the language of my family, I probably had accumulated 1,000 covers I could play,” said Bragg.

He recalls one St. Patrick’s Day at Bull Feeney’s around 2010, when he was scheduled to play for about three or four hours in the afternoon, then another group was scheduled to take over for him. But that group canceled, and Bragg was asked to play another couple of hours. After he had played about six hours, people wanted to see how long he could go, and the bar’s owner offered to pay him for as long as he wanted to play. He ended up playing for 12 hours.

Around the same time, Bragg was playing country music in a band called This Way, which he began with Dave Patterson, whom he had met at St. Michael’s. Around 2009, they were joined by fiddle player Andrew Martelle, a Maine native who had played in Nashville for a while. Soon, Martelle and Bragg started also playing as a duo, called North of Nashville.

Bragg credits another several-hours-long gig, at The Rack near Sugarloaf ski area, with spreading North of Nashville’s reputation around Maine. The duo was popular enough for Bragg to do music full-time, pay his bills and save money. North of Nashville toured around the country and opened for big acts like Dierks Bentley and Chris Stapleton.

But Bragg said he always knew he would eventually move to Nashville, the historic and emotional heart of country music. When decided to leave his duo with Martelle and move to Music City in 2015, he had about $5,000 saved up. He figured that would tide him over until he could establish himself.

But Nashville has a few more country musicians than Maine, and it took longer than Bragg figured to get paying gigs.

FINALLY, A GOOD BREAK

One night, while driving for Uber to make money, a young woman nearly threw up in his car. He decided he was wasting time. So he emailed AJ’s and dropped of a demo of his music. AJ’s was a place he really wanted to play because it was owned by Alan Jackson and is known for traditional country music, something Bragg says is surprisingly lacking in Nashville. He also had about 20 of Jackson’s songs in his repertoire.

He didn’t hear back for a quite a while, then got a call one day to do that fill-in gig.

Bragg started performing regularly at AJ’s, keeping a landscaping job as well. After a while, he was doing three nights a week at AJ’s and at least a couple nights at other bars, making enough money to live on and saving enough tip money to finance “Honky Tonk Dream.” The album is all original songs except a cover of Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.”

The songs are twangy, fiddle- and guitar-driven and range from upbeat dance numbers like “I Can Only Dance to Country Music” to slower tempo songs like “The Dreamer” or “Leave the Light On.”

Saving Country Music’s review in June called it a treat for “twang-starved masses wanting to hear country music like it was, and like it always should be.”

It turns out Bragg was smart to want to work at AJ’s for a variety of reasons, including that Jackson believes in helping young musicians.

Jackson has been a country star for nearly 30 years, but when he was trying to make it in the business, and hitting dead ends, he got help from the legendary Glen Campbell, Harville said. Jackson’s wife, Denise, approached Campbell in an airport to give him one of her husband’s demo tapes. Campbell later decided to help Jackson launch his career.

“So (Jackson) is all about giving people a shot, just like he was,” said Harville.

In December, Jackson’s management decided to pick some AJ’s regulars as openers for his 2019 tour, including Bragg and two other performers, who will take turns opening for Jackson on more than a dozen tour dates this year. Bragg has four dates scheduled so far: Friday in Madison, Wisconsin, and Saturday in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then April 12 in Oklahoma City and April 13 in Omaha, Nebraska.

Bragg hopes to make the most of his tour dates with Jackson. He’ll play with his five-piece band as an opener on stage and before the show in a separate VIP area.

He’s currently working on material for another album and hopes, after the tour, to focus on another dream of his, to play the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, a sort of sacred ground for country musicians.

“I’m very thankful, this whole thing has been like living my own honky tonk dream,” said Bragg.

 


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