Chuck Ragan: Midnight Cowboy
He fronts Hot Water Music, he makes heartfelt folk-rock under his own name and he paddles his own damn canoe. Chuck Ragan is everything a man should be – and BLUNT spoke with him for a very, very long time.
After several delays in getting through to the man, BLUNT finally got on the line with Chuck Ragan. What was expected to be a standard 15-minute interview – 20at a stretch – eventually became a 70-minute chat. Of course, this simply wouldn’t fit in a 600-word feature. So, for those that dare to venture further, here is the complete interview.
So, we were supposed to speak a little while back – originally, we couldn’t do the interview because I was told that you were out duck hunting?
Is it such a frequent occurrence that it all starts to blur into one big hunt?
It depends on what time of year it is [laughs]. I dunno, when I’m home, I’m out in the woods and out on the water quite often.
People seem to be quite drawn to that aspect of you – there’s a lot of love for your Instagram photos of you holding up fish, going out hunting, carving out your own dinner. It’s a lot like Nick Offerman, the whole “paddling your own canoe” thing. Do you find that interesting? The whole culture of manliness?
Well, I know that a lot of people look at it in that way. I think some people blow it out of proportion. What a lot of people don’t realise is it’s… they’re still looking at it on social media [laughs]. And it was me who put it there! I know that there’s a lot of people out there that may have occupations or jobs that are a hell of a lot more tough than mine. I respect that. However you wanna classify them, when you’re judging what’s manly or not… what they do is seriously tough. I know a lot of them, I’ve worked with a lot of them somehow. So when people talk about what I do and they call what I do “manly”? I dunno. To me, it is what it is.
It’s a journalistic trope to ask musicians what they would be doing if they weren’t playing music, but it can probably be indulged here – is pursuing hunting and the like what you would be spending most of your time on if it wasn’t for music?
Quite possibly, but in a way, I don’t know. I always thought maybe I’d be a flight fishing guy. Maybe a guide of some sorts. Who knows? Only because I never learned how to fly a helicopter…
There’s still time! You never know where life may take you.
This is true!
Of course, we’re here to talk about Chuck Ragan: The Musician. Congratulations on the new album; it truly is a great record.
Thank you so much, man. We had a blast doing it. It was just live and exciting the whole way through. There was a serious positive chemistry that was flowing with all of the guys playing.
It’s interesting to note that you’re about as well known now for your solo work as you are for what you’ve done in the past with Hot Water Music. Do you find writing for yourself has come a lot more naturally over the years than it has writing for HWM or writing for other people?
It feels great. There’s definitely a kind of difference that’s formed in a lot of ways over the years. I gotta say, though, that there’s not a whole lot that’s really, really different than it has been for years. I write pretty regularly. Especially nowadays, when everything is so easy to document. Everywhere I turn, just looking around my house… I can record on this phone, I can record on my laptop, I can record on that computer over there, there’s a tape recorder over there I could use. There’s just so many means to not forget an idea, to hopefully get back to it later. I write in different ways – sometimes, I’ll work on a song right then and there. Sometimes, it won’t get touched for months. For years, sometimes. It’s become a lot easier to than in the old days, when we’d just have a four-track or something. There’d have to be a lot more energy going into recording something – it took a bit more effort. Sometimes, it’s kind of stacked up on itself. It could end up being a lot of different things – it may end up being one of my songs, it may end up being a Hot Water song, it could be a song to use in a film, it could be a song for someone else. I’ve definitely gained more of a confidence, I think. That I owe all to the people that have supported me along the way. When I look at the bare bones of it, I’m not doing anything different to what I was doing when I was thirteen years old. At the end of the day, I just wanna write a song. I want to make music; I want to make a song come to life. Over the years, people have just been so incredibly positive and supportive. It’s definitely worked as an accelerant.
Tell us a bit about the players you’ve been working on Till Midnight. It’s one of the most impressive aspects of the album.
They insane, aren’t they! [Laughs]. They’re so incredible. Y’know, all of it happened very, very naturally. To me, when I hear the album, that’s what I hear – the natural progression of what happened. Jon Gaunt is someone I’ve played with a long time – I think the first time I played with him was maybe twelve years ago. We didn’t start playing together heavy-duty until around Los Feliz and the Feast or Famine record… about 2006. When we started doing that, we just kept rolling full-steam ahead. Jon is classically trained, but he’s a Virginia boy – he grew up around a lot of bluegrass and country music. He plays rock & roll too, but he takes the fiddle to a whole new level. A lot of people ask, “What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?” Honestly, it’s just the way you play it. [laughs] He’s really excelled with his instrument, especially in the past six years or so. He’s got incredible pitch for a string player. I’ve seen some players where it’s really tough when they’re recording – they have to do take after take just to really get in tune. I’ve also known engineers who have had to tweak things and use some plug-ins or AutoTune on those instruments just to get them to lock in. Not Jon – he’s perfect like that. Joe Ginsberg came into the picture around 2010. I hit it off with him incredibly, and he’s been with us pretty much ever since. He does some solo work, and also plays in a band called Baywood. He’s fantastic. He’s one of the most talented bass players I’ve met in my life. He went to school for it. He’s kinda one of those musicians who learns extremely fast. He became our Revival Tour music director because he was so good at that. When you’re out on Revival Tour, you’re learning up to 100 songs in a matter of weeks and then playing them live, on the spot. He really adapted to that tour. Watching him work is always incredible – he always locks right in, and he’s got a really good ear. A tasteful ear, I guess you could say. He doesn’t overplay, but he doesn’t underplay. He always falls into the right pocket.
I could say the exact same thing about David Hidalgo, Jr. We met when I was touring a lot with Social Distortion, back in 2011. We hit it off with Dave, we all became buddies. He came up and played with us a couple of times just for a bit of fun and it was incredible. It was really funny to turn around and think “Oh, the drummer from Social Distortion just jumped up in the middle of the set and played with us just on a whim.” [laughs] When it came time to do a record, we started to talk about what kind of record we wanted to do; what kind of live show we wanted to do. We asked ourselves if we wanted to have drums or not. “If we’re gonna have a drummer,” we thought, “let’s see if we can get Hidalgo to do it.” At the time, he had just finished Dave Hause’s record, Devour. He’d also just worked with Johnny Wickersham on some stuff. He’s just a machine – one of those drummers who’s a human metronome. Incredible timing – impeccable for a human being. He’s just right in there – another perfect example of a musician who’s in just the right spot. I feel like you can always tell a fantastic drummer when you’re nodding your head, tapping your feet and moving your body all before you’ve even noticed that the drums are playing. He’s really something. Todd Beene… I couldn’t talk enough about Todd Beene! He plays pedal steel and electric guitar, and did some backing vocals and percussion as well. He was just all over the place on this record. I met him for the first time in maybe 2007 or 2008… it was one of those. I was playing some shows with Ben Nichols from the band Lucero. We really hit it off the first time. We did some shows together, he did Revival Tour… our paths kept crossing from there. He did a couple of tours with me and recorded on the Gold Country and the Covering Ground records. We’ve been playing together for years, just not with any kind of consistency.
Basically, all those guys I just mentioned… they were the backbone of the record. We were really lucky to record at Rami Jaffee’s studio, Photogenics. We did a few days there when we kicked off the sessions. Rami is an unbelievable player, an unbelievable musician and a hell of a guy. He played keyboards, glockenspiel and some accordion on the record. A lot of people know of his work and his signature B3 sound through The Wallflowers and the Foo Fighters. It’s amazing when you walk through his studios and you see these gold and platinum records. These are records that all of us have either grown up with, listen to all the time or at least have definitely heard of. He has so many incredible stories about musicians young and old. It was pretty incredible to get him involved. Christopher Thorn, who engineered and produced the record, is a fantastic multi-instrumentalist. He played some dobro, some electric guitar, some mandolin… even though he broke his wrist during the session. So for all of his parts, he was playing with a broken wrist.
No way! What on earth happened there?
I think what happened is that his dad was making his son a treehouse – like a fort kind of thing. He left a ladder out, and Chris was going around the house at the end of the night. It was literally him just falling in the dark! [laughs] I remember getting the X-rays of his wrist back and we wanted to use it as the album art, but we didn’t get there in time.
That would have been awesome.
Right, right [laughs]! You may still see it again someday.
What were some of the influences and inspirations behind the songwriting on this record? I could hear people like Pete Seeger, Springsteen circa Nebraska, even a bit of the Travelling Willburys. Of course, I wouldn’t want to put words or ideas into your mouth, but that’s in a lot of what I heard on this record.
For starters, thanks – if you picked that up in the record, then we’re doing something right. All of those are fantastic inspirations. [laughs] Man, honestly? In a lot of ways, a lot the music I’ve been really inspired by has been written by a lot of my friends, a lot of my contemporaries, a lot of new musicians… just a lot of these extremely genuine songwriters that I’ve had the wonderful opportunity of meeting along the way in my travels. I love a lot of classic songwriters and older music; and I like getting out of my go-to stuff just to experiment and see what I can find… broaden the horizons here and there. What really gets the motor running, though, is the now. The people that are not only songwriters that sounds good to me, but people that I have the opportunity of meeting, travelling with, sharing dinner or coffee with, talking about how to make a song better; what got us into songwriting to begin with.
As a young kid growing up – this is far before I was ever in any bands – it was just me by myself – I didn’t have that many people to play with. That’s kind of how we all start, right? [laughs] That’s how a lot of people get into music – you kinda get a spark for it, and the next thing you know you’re in your room by yourelf. I dunno, man… I guess what I’m trying to say is that, as a kid, I was looking around at all of these songwriters and all these things that could happen and all these kind of ideas. The next thing I know, in the blink of an eye, I’m amongst it. I’m a part of it. I’m doing it. I’m not just sitting in my bedroom, reading in magazines about it, or reading in books about it. I’m a part of it – all these people around me are songwriters. Phenomenal songwriters. People, I feel, are some of the most incredible songwriters of our generation: Cory Branan, Jason Isbell, Ryan Bingham, Ben Kweller, Lydia Loveless, Jenny Owen-Youngs… it just astounds me, y’know? So, to answer your question: A lot of the inspiration comes from these people that I’ve come to love and respect. Not just for their music, but how they live their lives. People like Tim Barry, y’know? I don’t know if you listen to Tim Barry or not, but people hear about a guy like that and can ask someone who knows him. They’ll know then that he’s the real deal. He’s not singin’ stories about hoppin’ trains – he’s going and hoppin’ trains and then writing stories about it.
It reminds me a little bit of the mythology behind Brian Wilson hearing Sgt. Pepper’s and then going off and writing Pet Sounds. It seems like it’s a matter of measuring up to other’s greatness on your own terms.
There’s always this super-positive friendly competition thing going on. I know that we’ve all stayed up late and talked to one another… I’m always so stoked to hear about my friend’s new records, whether they’re in the works or they’ve just finished them. It’s always one of things where it’s like “Oh man, what’s it gonna be like? What’re they gonna do? What am I gonna do?” They always manage to get the hair standing up on the back of my neck. It ends up driving you. It’s a beautiful thing. To answer your question about the inspiration of the record a little further: There’s a lot of optimism on this record. A lot more than my previous recordings. Granted, a lot of my material has been dark with a light at the end of the tunnel. To me, music has always been a form of therapy; a way of healing. A way to recognise your surroundings and your ailments and figure out what you’re going to do, what you can do, what can be done to make things better. What I’ve noticed about the songs on this record… I dunno, man, they all feel up. They all feel on the up. It felt really good to put together a record like this. I’m in a really great place right now – I’m happily married for almost ten years to a wonderful woman; we have a very simple, modest home in the foothills of Northern California. We’re always trying to simplify our life a little more. I’m really comfortable. I’m happy. As happy as happy can get, you might say. I’m really proud of what we did – man, if this was the last record I ever did in my life, I’d be proud to put my stamp on it all and say “wow, that was wonderful” and feel really blessed. I don’t plan on it being the last, of course – I’m gonna write records until the day that I die or as long as I can mentally and physically get through it. I think this one is an extremely positive record.
One of highlights of the album is Whistleblower’s Song. I’ve listened to it a few times and I’ve really grown to love it. I was interested in the story behind that one in particular – especially considering the terminology and definition of “whistleblower” has changed fairly drastically in a post-Snowden world.
Well, I’d be curious to find out what you thought the song was about…
It’s the kind of the song that leaves it open-ended enough to give you the impression of anything. There’s a couple of lines in there, in particular, that make me think there’s a deeper personal connection to what you’re singing about; but also a degree of ambiguity.
It’s kind of a deep song, and it goes in a lot of different directions. There were quite a few different inspirations behind it that ended up moulding into this one thing. It began as a song of frustation towards all the negativity on television. It turned into this kind of… not so much a rant, but a cry of help for change towards extremists within organised religion. Not just your everyday religious person, but the extremists: People who believe that there’s only one way, and that people who think there isn’t don’t deserve to exist.
The minorities that ruin it for the majority, if you will.
Sure, exactly. I was in a conversation with a band awhile ago… I won’t name any names, but it was an incredible thing. Everybody’s different – the way people change, the way politics and spirituality come into people’s lives. People change. There was a conversation that I had where a couple of people had completely different views on life and religion – they were affiliated with two opposite religions. One of the points that was brought up was this idea that there’s this better place; there’s this better world somewhere else. Not here. This idea, this way of living, was an extremely dangerous thought. The theory was that if you believe you can do no wrong because we’ve made a choice to live in this place or be a part of this place after we die… what’s going to keep us from doing the right thing while we’re here? What’s gonna be the line that’s drawn that keeps us on the straight and narrow while we’re around other living people that might not think that way? I speak a little about that in the chorus: “I can’t wait for salvation.” In a lot of ways, I can relate with it – obviously, I wrote it. I mean that mentality, though. I’ve seen both sides. I come from a very religious southern Baptist family. My folks are pretty stick-to-the-Bible conservative. They’ve been very open-minded in most ways to what I do. I’ve met some people along the way who have that mentality – that it almost didn’t matter what happened here. That’s not what they were living for. They were living for this – this other place. To me, that’s just a dangerous way to live, to think and to treat people. There’s a lyric in the song: “I can’t answer a desperate call if I don’t hear the whistleblower’s song.” I don’t know how to help or how to contribute if I don’t hear what’s wrong to begin with; if I don’t hear anyone calling for help or alerting others to what’s happening. That’s where the title comes from.
Tell us a bit about where the Revival Tour is at currently.
It’s always kind of in motion in one way or another. It’s an extremely difficult tour to organise and bring together. We have some plans for a little further down the road, but I have a tendency to get a lot of plates spinning at the same time, as my wife would put it. I love to work, I believe in my work and I believe in what I’m doing. I believe in all of these awesome people around me who I want to be around. In the end, I have a tendency to just stack and stack… “it always looks good on paper,” my wife says. When we’re sitting down, marking it on the calendar, it’s a lot easier to just write it down. Next thing you know, you’re booked a year and a half in advance… and then you have to fulfil those obligations [laughs]. It can wear you down. The last few years have been tough. I’m not gonna lie to you. I already had a full time job between my own work and the Revival Tour; and then I took on the Hot Water Music stuff again… just trying to juggle those three entities, aside from trying to have somewhat of a personal life and a homelife. It can be really tough. The goal was just to try and minimise the running around and my tendency to get those plates spinning and just focus. It’s what needed to happen – I was really unhealthy, I was in a bad way. I was pulling it off here and there, but I was really worn out. I probably wasn’t that pleasant to be around, just because I was extremely stressed – I always had a phone call, an email to return. I just wanted to slow down and really cherish everything that I’ve done; everything that I’m a part of here at home as well as in music. What that meant was that I could still do all of this stuff, but I didn’t have to do 120 days on the road with Revival and then another 100 days on the road with Hot Water.
The plans are a lot more minimal right now – we really want to make the shows special and pull them together in a really strong way. All of the Revival Tours have always been something else, but it’s tough to try and build something in a way that people get their heads around it. It’s kind of a tough concept to put to a promoter that there isn’t a headliner. They’ll be like, “How do I sell tickets to this? What do you mean, there’s no headliner?” You have to explain that we’re all playing together. It’s a showcase… it’s a show! It takes them five minutes into the first couple of songs and they get it.We would love to bring it back to Australia. We haven’t been back since 2010. There were a couple of moments where we were almost able to get the tour there, but couldn’t because of finances or because of timing. It’s a tough tour to wrangle. There’s a lot of moving pieces… but it’s worth it. And it’ll be back, in one way or another.
So you’d like to come back? It’s something that a lot of fans here would really love to happen.
I would love to come back. I miss it! I miss it very much. Man, it’s been too long. I would love to get over there to support this record and bring the guys over. The show we have going on right now is like nothing I’ve ever done. It’s wild! I’ve kind of got the best of both worlds – with these guys, there’s just this energy that kind of comes over us; and with the way the songs are, the way we’ve adapted the older songs… the set is just so diverse. It’s a rollercoaster. It’s the first time in my life where I’ve been able to get up and play for an hour and just go into all these different spectrums of music that I love. We’re rocking out, cranked up at one point; then we’ll have it stripped down, soft, super-intimate. Moving it around so that it all flows in the one set. It’s been so exciting. It just stays interesting and it stays diverse… and when it doesn’t feel that way, we change it. They’re just the kind of band that I can turn around to and say “we’re playing this song in this key” and they’re right there with me. There have been sometimes that they’ve told me that I just started playing a song that we’d not talked about, and I hadn’t even noticed because they were onto it so quickly. They’re just that kind of band – they got my back, and I got theirs. It’s a wonderful experience.
Later this year, you’re turning 40 years old. What is the one thing that you know now that you wish you knew when you were turning 30?
Man… that’s a whole other interview! [Laughs]. We’re always learning, man. It’s amazing how fast this life goes by. Sometimes, I kinda wake up in the morning and I’ll feel good – I’ll be running with my dogs, doing a lot of work. I forget what age I’m at. I forget where I’ve been or what I’ve been. Not being completely oblivious, but just living in the moment. I’m out in my shed at the moment, and one of the projects I’m both dreading and looking forward to is about four boxes full of tour posters. There must be a thousand posters. I’ve been meaning to clear a spot on my workbench to go through them – send the doubles to friends, frame some of them, clean some of them up. Somedays, I’ll forget what I’ve done and how long I’ve been in this cycle of writing songs and writing music. And then, somedays, something like this happens [laughs]. I’m very grateful that I have people in my life that have told me from a very young age what an incredible tool music can be. Music could be this enlightening thing that we all have the opportunity to grab, to hang onto, to learn something from, to rejuvenate ourselves. It’s the same thing with being in a band – I was lucky enough to be in a band where they got to show me that playing music didn’t have to be about being popular and making money. It could be something deeper. Something meaningful. Something that could last a lifetime. I feel really lucky that those are the kind of people that showed me the path. Every once in awhile, it hits me how long I’ve been in the cycle of writing something, then recording it and then touring it. It flies by you. There were a few years – some of them were even recent – where I didn’t live the best. I didn’t take care of myself. The road can be pretty tough sometimes, if you’re travelling 7-10 months out of the year. There’s not a lot of time to just stop, organise and fix everything that you broke along the way. If I could tell my 30-year-old self something, it would be to slow down. Enjoy the people around you more. Try not to pack 200 objectives into one day. Enjoy every moment a bit more.
I released a book a few years back called The Road Most Travelled, and the question I put to people was what the most valuable thing they had learned on the road. I sent it out to musicians, to crew, to men and women who have all spent lives on the road. What I got back reminded me a lot of the phrase “what’s obvious isn’t always seen.” The response was incredible. There were a lot of great stories, but also a lot of great lessons – things that we don’t always remember. It was really cool putting that together – I’d learn something new every time somebody sent something in.I will say this, man – and I thank you for your time, as well – I can’t regret anything. I think about that often. I don’t see any point in regret for me. I’m really happy where I am. I’m comfortable, like I said before. Beautiful wife; no kids but two beautiful dogs. I’m playing music I believe in with people I respect. If I did anything along the way, positive or negative, I may not be where I am right now. When it comes down to it, I don’t know if I would change anything.
For the full story, pick up a copy of BLUNT issue #127, on sale here and at all good newsagents throughout Australia and New Zealand.