The Christmas season is truly here, if only a bit warmer than usual. Hopefully instead of having family that drives them crazy, Tuscaloosa people can recharge their batteries for the upcoming new year with fingers crossed for some good shows around town happening as soon as the break lifts. It’s a little dead now for music, but that’s nothing odd — although it seems a little slow, all hope isn’t lost. There are still occasional shows here and there. You can find a few and enjoy them during the holidays. And I’d be willing to bet that if you look hard enough, you’d see Tuscaloosa’s musical own version of Santa. In fact, this is a guy who seems to bring his own brand of joy to people around town who know him. If Tuscaloosa had a real-life Santa Claus who happened to play guitar way too fast, chances are it would be Ham Bagby.
Bagby’s constantly mentioned in reference to his guitar antics, and it’s true: he’s a marvel at the instrument, especially at high speeds. If you’ve been to one of his shows, you know that. That’s not what I’m here to convince you of. That’s too easy of a sell. While you may not love his style, to say that he cannot play would be a lie or a denial.
What you may not be doing, which would be a disservice to yourself if you’ve never noticed, is noting that Ham Bagby has a lot more going for him that playing guitar at breakneck pace. Bagby has been one of the primary elements of the local music scene; even when it seemed like Tuscaloosa had very little going for it in that arena, Bagby has been somewhere along the fringes if not dead center.
What I have noticed from afar is that Bagby seems to be the backbone of encouragement for people to keep at making their own music. I’ve watched him do it for years now: he’s hosted an open mic around town somewhere or another where he seemingly, and with good nature, pesters newcomers and old timers into playing their own songs — I have seen him repeatedly telling even the worst of musicians that they are great. He’s not lying, either. He sincerely believes that anyone doing their own thing is good for the community. It’s as if Bagby is sort of the the anti-element of bad attitudes that have crept into certain areas of Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama. Plus, he’s been here a lot longer and will be here long after those elements are gone.
Bagby is right, though. Without the push, some artists would stay hidden and never play (or think that they should attempt a live performance). And again, there are those people that really should not try. But that’s for us, the audience, to ignore, not for Bagby to dissuade.
Countless bands that we have grown to follow or immediately love have come from those open mics or even Bagby himself. (Where are the Ne’er-Do-Wells now, by the way?)
This is not to mention his songwriting, perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Bagby’s repertoire. In his album released this year, Shit’s Crucial is Track 7, Bagby, along with his backing band, The Siege, shows just how witty, his best attribute when showcasing his own material, he is at songwriting. (You can get the album here.) Like a great comedian, Bagby walks a fine line between what’s appropriate and what’s hilarious. (See: “Bitch in Prison” from the same album.)
I suppose the real shame is that Bagby either isn’t able to function on his own music alone or doesn’t want to function on with only playing his own songs, a sign of many things. (That could be evidence to a notion that this town’s audiences love a cover band, which Bagby plays as well.)
That doesn’t stop him from giving back, though, and it makes him a wonder: how many people can blend a set of nearly half their originals and half covers and yet please almost everyone in the venue? There are a few around town that do it, though Bagby could be arguably the best at it. Seems like I’ve heard more requests for “Shit’s Crucial” than I have for “Sweet Home Alabama” when Bagby is on stage, and sometimes when he’s not.
He keeps being a selfless person, though, which Tuscaloosa has a lot of. Sometimes, though I know better, I think that Bagby invented the cliched notion of the selfless Tuscaloosa musician. He didn’t, but it’s pretty to think so.