Hard Core Solo – Chuck Ragan Strikes Gold

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Transitioning between musical styles can be a risky prospect for a player in the public eye. After a band breaks out, it doesn't take long for the group in question and its members to become associated with a scene or sound and, when that happens, there's suddenly a set of expectations (of community, of performance, of convention and behavior) that they have to live up to; sudden changes can be a treacherous path to take because the fan base they've amassed may not be comfortable following along anymore. After a manner of speaking, it's at that point when some musicians begin to start feeling trapped by their own art. For that reason (and several more), some musicians begin to feel a little claustrophobic with their own art. That's why sudden shifts are simply not made by bands very often unless they're in the mood to gamble.

Some artists do gamble their future though and, as the case of Chuck Ragan proves, some do win. After leaving punk stalwarts Hot Water Music the first time in 2006, Ragan picked up an acoustic guitar and began writing more scaled back, folk and country-inspired songs with little expectation of popular appeal; by his own admission, it was just something he wanted to do. His first solo album, Feast Or Famine, appeared on record store shelves courtesy of Side One Dummy Records in 2007 and its warm reception proved to be a rebirth for the singer; it proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Ragan didn't need to make ears bleed to make an impact on listeners. Emboldened, he kept going and now, with the release of Gold Country last year, Ragan has found himself at the center of his own self-made movement. Now, he has a dedicated fan base far larger than those curiosity seekers that simply carried over from Hot Water Music in the name of community.

Even so, the transition from punk to folk is a large one isn't it? While it may be a stretch for some performers, Ragan says that nothing could have possibly felt more natural. “To me, it's not so big a stretch from anything that I've ever done,” explains the singer of his switch in style. “Well, actually, there's probably two answers to that. To me, all of this music I've done is very similar. With Hot Water Music, we'd all write separately and then come back together and pool our resources to put albums together. There were a lot of great things about doing that – one is that you have your buddies to rely on to help police each other's ideas – and the only downfall to it is the fact that, because you are a collective, there's going to be arguments about what music everyone agrees is good and which aren't.

“With my solo stuff, it's sort of similar, but I don't really have anyone's expectations to live up to other than my own which is very liberating; I feel like there are no boundaries and I can pretty much explain myself as honestly and flat-out as I want. The reason it's come together like it has just the fact that, over the past five years or so, I've been putting more focus on it and actually pushing at getting the music out there – but there's definitely a familiar feeling to it for me.

“I think I can say that pretty confidently,” continues Ragan. “Even all the old Hot Water Music stuff was written with us sitting around on a porch on acoustic guitars. All of that started out as folk songs that we transcribed, plugged in, turned up and let rip. I grew up in the Southeast and I came from a fairly conservative, Southern Baptist household so I grew up around a lot of old time gospel, a lot of bluegrass music, cajun music and country music but then, as I got older, I got into skateboarding and learned about all these crazy and aggressive bands that made me feel scared and excited all at the same time. They sent me in a whole other direction but that doesn't mean I deliberately forgot all the stuff I heard before that. I think for any songwriter or artist in general – whether it's music or photography or painting or writing or whatever – I think you're influenced and affected and touched by all these different experiences and emotions all of your life and, whether you know it or not, you take those with you as you go along if they affected you in a serious way. When that happens, one way or another, it's going to come out in your own work so, to me, the difference in the sounds I made then versus the ones I'm making now aren't that great a stretch. At the end of the day, I've just always loved writing simple songs – it's therapy to me, I love it and it feels good.”

Feeling good and just going for it has certainly worked out well for Ragan before but on his third Side One Dummy-released solo album, Gold Country, the ideas that the singer has been working with for his whole career come together with almost charmed results. This time out, a balance has been struck between the different facets of the singer's musical background in such a way that there are no obvious seams in the fabric; a punk's sense of urgency combines with a folk singer's social commentary and a singer-songwriter's heart to produce a muscular album that's equal parts aggression, social discourse and intimacy. Songs including “Old Diesel,” “Let It Rain” and “Rotterdam” find a midpoint between Bruce Springsteen and Ed Hammel that kicks as hard as it caresses and, even at both extremes, reveals an incredible attention to craft; not a note is wasted and not one doesn't ring true. No matter which angle the singer takes, the enduring affectation is one of truth – or the search for it and fairness too. It's a remarkable cross arranged here that, according to the singer, took time to process but it was undoubtedly time well spent. “[The making of this album] was actually the most time that I've spent on any recording that I've ever done in my life,” confides Ragan on the making of Gold Country. “It wasn't because I was having a hard time with it though, I actually took a long time with it on purpose. We weren't due to put out a new record – everybody asked me if I wanted to do it so quickly because we had just put out Feast Or Famine – but, to me, life is short and I could be dust tomorrow so, if I've got songs that are ready to record, I just want to do it, be done with it and get it out there.

“I wanted to take my time with it too,” continues the singer. “I wanted to walk in and lay some stuff down, and then just walk away from it to let that steep before I went back in and looked at it. At the same time, we were super busy with some of the tours and other work we'd been doing, so for the first time in my life I felt like I had the opportunity to say that I'd let this record just be done when it's done. Everything else I've ever done has been on a super-strict time schedule and this one did too, but I felt like I could stretch it out a little further because I was producing all by myself for the first time. That was great, but it was kind of a pain [laughing] because everyone I know is their own worst critic and so am I so there were times when it became a matter of knowing where to draw the line and cut myself off. It's tough to do it on your own, but I knew what I wanted and I also had a bunch of really awesome friends and musicians who came in to help so I sort of trusted that they'd tell me if what I was doing wasn't any good [laughing].”

With the hard work and production finished and out of the way, Ragan has already set himself up with a daunting tour schedule this year. According to the guitarist, his Revival bus tour will enter its third year with an even more impressive list of players – including Frank Turner, Ben Nichols (of Lucero), Tim Barry (of Avail), Todd Beene and Jon Gaunt – join up to sit in and show all-different strokes of both folk and punk. “The Revival tour is something that my wife and I put together and have been doing it for the last two years,” Ragan beam, audibly brightening at the mention of the tour. “It's basically a big old collaboration of singer-songwriters based around acoustic folk music, Americana, some bluegrass and some blues. We hire a big tour bus and throw in about ten or twelve people and just hit the road. We've done it the last two years all across the United States, and it's really sort of like a big showcase; the whole point of it is to break down the barriers of, like, who should be a headliner and who should be an opener and just go into it with an 'all-for-one-and-one-for-all' attitude.

The show just starts and it goes for about three or for hours,” continues the guitarist, “it doesn't stop – and people just sort of come on and off stage non-stop; we play together and we play each other's songs. Before the tour even begins we learn each other's stuff so we can all do it together. It's fun; it's more like a big backyard party than the average rock n' roll show where there's the monotony of the opening act and then a break and then the next act followed by a break before the headliner goes on and plays and then everybody goes home.

“It's definitely not a new thing,” says Ragan modestly. “It's has been happening for years and years, but it's not something that I've ever really seen in our scene or our circle or the musical community that I grew up with. This year, we want to turn it into an international travelling tour, so we're bringing it to Australia in April and then to Europe next Fall, and then we want to bring it to Canada as well; I'm really excited to get out there and do it again because it keeps getting better every time we do it.”

Before that all starts later this year though, Ragan has lined up a series of dates with Tim Barry Dave Hause and Cavaliers! across Canada and with Frank Turner and Tim Vantol through Europe to give audiences a more intimate look at Gold Country. “I've done a couple of tours before where I had a full-seven-piece ensemble with piano and percussion and everything along and also three-piece tours, but this one's going to be a different kind of animal,” says Ragan as he explains what audiences will see when he takes the stage. “On this one, it's just going to be Jon Gaunt – the fiddle player – and I on stage. I've traveled like that quite a bit before, but I want to see how it's going to work out in these venues and get people's appetites whet before we do the revival tour later this year; I want to make for an intimate show.”



Chuck Ragan – “Good Enough for Rock and Roll” – Gold Country

Further Reading:

Ollie Mikse's 777” column with focus on Chuck Ragan.


Gold Country
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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