ChuckRagan

Cut Open, Spilled Out: An Interview with Chuck Ragan | The Scoop

[Editor's Note: This interview previews Chuck Ragan's performance Thursday, Dec. 1 at Duffy's Tavern in Lincoln, with Scratch Howl, The Bottletops and Video Ranger. Doors at 8. $10/21+, $12/18-20. More info here.]

You could drape any of Chuck Ragan‘s acoustic songs atop this scene and it would fit snug as grandma’s quilt on your shoulders. It’s raining, and he’s in a van on the road with a couple of his buddies — one a fiddle player, the other an upright bassist.
Ragan’s voice sounds dusty, weathered, as if he’s been driving a head of cattle from Laramie to Wichita.
“We’re on the way to Grand Rapids — mile, I don’t know … Exit 15, Lloyd Road somewhere, we’re in Michigan,” he says through a crackling cell phone.
It’s appropriate to reach Ragan like this — barreling down the interstate. It’s where he’s been most of the last two decades since he and three friends started a punk/post-hardcore band in Gainesville, Fla., called Hot Water Music in 1993 that has since influenced just about every punk band that ever cracked open a PBR tallboy. After Hot Water Music went on an indefinite hiatus in 2006, Ragan started focusing on his acoustic folk music, which he’d been honing in a HWM side project called Rumbleseat.
He’s since put out three acoustic albums, including his most recent in September called Covering Ground (SideOneDummy). The aptly titled record is a 10-track collection of gritty, melodic folk songs rooted in and, often, written about the road. Featuring appearances by Ragan’s friends Brian Fallon (The Gaslight Anthem) and Chris Thorn (Blind Melon) — along with his current touring pals Jon Gaunt on fiddle and Joe Ginsberg on upright bass — it features Ragan crowing and calling in his straightforward, approachable style that makes you feel like there’s a chance, if you asked him nicely, he’d play your backyard BBQ.
Considering Ragan’s friendly and personable manner, he probably would if he had time. But that’s not so easy to come by lately.
Currently on tour supporting punk legends Social Distortion, Ragan’s also busy booking and scheduling the 2012 Revival Tour. In its third year in 2011, the punks-gone-folk tour featured Ragan, Fallon, Dave Hause (The Loved Ones) and Dan Andriano (Alkaline Trio). In October of this year, a short film Ragan scored was released. Called It’s Better in the Wind, the film is a collage of photos and video shot by Ragan’s friend Scott Toepfler on a motorcycle tour across the western United States. And for the last couple years, Ragan’s been playing occasional shows with a reunited Hot Water Music.
Ragan and company slow down for one night at Duffy’s Tavern in Lincoln Thursday, Dec. 1. We spoke with him by phone on Sunday about what fills him up when he’s run himself empty, Thanksgiving on tour and growing older with folk.
Hear Nebraska: How have shows been going? Does your crowd know the new record yet?
Chuck Ragan: They’ve been great. The response has been great. We’ve been playing a lot of the new stuff every night, so, as much as we can. That’s why we’re out here, just supporting the new record. It’s a lot of fun playing the new stuff, and actually, I’m surprised at how many folks in this audience in particular already know the new songs and are singing along.

Chuck Ragan “Covering Ground” by SideOneDummy

What’s your crowd like? Do have a sense as to whether the older people at your shows tend to be there because they know Hot Water Music or because they’ve heard your acoustic stuff?

No, these folks, the majority of them haven’t ever heard Hot Water Music, from what we’re learning. A lot of them are just old Social D fans. The majority of them are either my age or older, and some of them have heard of Hot Water, but the majority of them haven’t. They have no idea.

So it’s pretty cool just to be out there. You have that challenge, that fire in your belly, standing up in front of people who have no idea who you are, and who at first could care less, really. They’re there to see Social D blow the roof off the joint, and just have a good night out. Not that they don’t care about the support bands … you know, they came to see Social D. So it kind of puts a fire in your gut to get up there and give it everything you’ve got. And what we’ve found is that at the end of the night we try and be out at that table as much as possible and meet people and just be approachable. We’ve met a lot of great folks, folks that had no idea what we’ve been doing or what I’ve been doing for the past couple decades, and they’re just there to have a good night out. And it’s pretty cool, just turning on some new folks to what we’re doing.

How much have you toured in this last year? And how tough is it touring traveling during holidays? 
Oh man, it’s brutal. This past year has been pretty busy. I think we’ve done at this point close to 170 gigs. And then, normally, it’s a day or two on the front and back of each tour, and then a few days off in between the tours. I don’t know, we’ve probably been away from home anywhere from 220-240 days out of the year.
It’s tough, man. But a long time ago it was the path that we chose. We always call it “the Blessing and the Curse.” We have an opportunity to do something that we love to do and to bring our music all over the world, and that’s a dream come true, man. It truly is a remarkable thing to be a part of, these tours, and the network, and just the circuit. And there’s a family and a camaraderie within the circle that we travel in and that truly is a blessing, man. There’s nothing like it. And then to be invited into so many awesome communities and scenes all over the world is just really something else. I’ve never known anything like it.
But, at the same time, there is a darker side to it and a really tough side to it where you have to make a massive amount of sacrifices to be doing this. Just like anybody would if their occupation entailed them being away from home or away from their families for long periods of time.
And that’s tough. It’s always tough to be away from your family over holidays, but … How we spent, for instance, this past Thanksgiving, just me and the boys found a hotel room and we went and got some turkey and made some turkey sandwiches in the hotel room. And we made the best of it and enjoyed each other’s company. … And I spent the evening over video chat and sat down and had a candlelight Thanksgiving dinner with my wife back home. So, you learn to make the best out of it, but there are definitely times along the way where … Man, over the years I’ve missed births, I’ve missed funerals and weddings and anniversaries. You know, it’s just the price that you pay for choosing a life on the road.
Where is home, and what do you do when you’re back there?
I live up in Northern California, up in the foothills of the Sierras, in a small, little mountain town called Grass Valley. We’re basically in the foothills of the Eastern Sierras. It’s a population just under 12,000 people. It’s an old gold rush town in an area that’s actually known as gold country.
My wife and I found it We haven’t lived there that long, maybe four years. When we’re home, for the most part, as of late, we try to take as much time out for ourselves as possible. But that time is few and far between, nowadays. We’ve got a beautiful chocolate lab, and we get out in the woods or to the water and just enjoy the outdoors. It’s a beautiful place for folks who love the outdoors — a lot of good fishing and hunting, a lot of gorgeous rivers and lakes and a lot of water around us. So we do quite a bit of that, but for the most part, it seems like we relax a little bit here and there and then we’re just kind of heads right back in the game, preparing for the next one.
Between my stuff and the Revival Tour that we host and organize, and nowadays a little bit of stuff with Hot Water Music … needless to say, we’re pretty busy.
I imagine so. Well, if you ever find yourself in Nebraska with a couple days off, you should do some walleye fishing.
You know what, I’ve always wanted to do that there. (Laughs) I’d love to, man. I would love it.
I’ve never seen your acoustic shows before, but recordings translate what feels like a real communal, rapport with your audience. How does it feel to you? And is there a way you approach your shows and your audience that produces that kind of environment? 
I want to play a show that I’d like to go see. To speak plainly here, we love to play music and we enjoy playing with each other. To us, when we get on stage that’s our time of the day where we leave all the stress and attitudes and frustration — we leave that on the floor. And we get up there and just shake it off and do what we’re there to do. That said, that’s the kind of shows that I want to see. I don’t want to go see a show and pay good money and spend my time and energy getting there to stand and look up at somebody who doesn’t want to be there or has an attitude or an ego. Or just kind of is putting off any kind of negative energy. I don’t have time for that in my life. And I also just feel that whatever we surround ourselves with and whatever types of people and attitudes and just energies and vibes from folks. Whatever we surround ourselves is just going to reflect on our own way of living and our own thoughts and days and progress. We’re here to have a good time and do what we love to do.
I mean, I’m not going to lie to you. There are plenty of times where we’re haggard, we’re tired or we’re even under the weather or missing home, or just plain not wanting to be in some dingy backstage room or whatever. And everybody has those moments, but at the end of the day, when we get up on that stage, that’s what we’re going through all of the rest of the mess to do. Not to mention that you’ve only got one shot to make a first impression. And the last thing I want to do is for people to spend their time and energy and money to come see us perform and not have a good time or to walk away not satisfied. That’s just not fair. So if folks are going to meet us halfway, we’re going to meet them. And I think that whole attitude carries over to the crowd. And we’ll give it out until we’re just empty in hopes that somebody will give a little back so we can just fill up and keep that cycle going.
Did you listen to folk bands growing up? Who are your influences around that genre?
I was born in Texas, and I went from Texas to Georgia to Tennessee to Louisiana to Georgia, and then to California. I grew up amidst an old-school, Southern Baptist household. And my mother’s an entertainer and sang all the time and we grew up with a lot of gospel music. Obviously, in the area we were in there was a lot of bluegrass, a lot of country music. And then on my mother’s side they were all Cajun folks, so there was a lot of Creole music and so forth all through the early years, and even today.
But somewhere along the line, as a teenager, I found BMX and freestyling and that led me into skateboarding. And skateboarding led me into punk rock, and it just went into a whole different direction. But all those styles of music and types of music we always present growing up.
My dad had a good buddy who he played golf with who used to be a songwriter. Before he became a professional golfer he just travelled around in his truck in Nashville and wrote a few hundred songs and he never really got off the ground, so he just kind of put it down and followed his career in golf. He was the first guy who taught me the basic chords before I ever learned a bar chord, or before I ever learned any punk rock songs. We’d sit around and he’d teach me old Dylan songs or “Brown Eyed Girl” or “(Sittin’) on the Dock of the Bay” — you name it, we just played whatever. And then some years later a buddy taught me how to play a bar chord and we sat down and learned a bunch of Misfits songs and that just spiraled into a whole ‘nother animal.
I was going to ask what happened internally that helped move you from punk rock to folk, but maybe the folk was always there. So how did that transition go, at least professionally, for you? And does age factor into it?
I think age definitely factors into it. But what a lot of folks don’t know is, I feel like it’s always been there. Even looking back on it right now, I was writing and playing on an acoustic guitar before I ever got into playing with an electric and playing in bands with an electric guitar. I think that was the foundation for it all.
Even through Hot Water Music, I was writing and recording acoustic stuff that was along the same lines as what I’m doing now. I would like to think that what I’m doing now has progressed a bit since then. I just didn’t put as much focus on it. Obviously, Hot Water Music was just kind of me and those guys — it was what we were doing and we were going full steam ahead. But at the same time, we were doing that acoustic stuff and playing shows and I had another project, Rumbleseat, a long time ago. And I think where the transition was was when Hot Water went on a kind of indefinite hiatus. I was tired of touring. I never stopped writing music and I never put down my guitar. And when we went on hiatus, the boys kind of started The Draft immediately and kind of kept on the train that they wanted to go on, and I got off the road. I wanted to get away from the music business entirely.
I just went back, focused on my trade and was in school for a while to get my general contractor’s license. I wanted to start a custom home-building business … Right after that, the housing market went down and the whole economy went down, and at the same time we moved up to Grass Valley where the pay scale was half of what it was in Southern California, where I moved from. And it was super tough. I mean, really tough. We struggled for a little bit, but at the same time just running in circles trying to book jobs and whatnot. And then, every once in a while, buddies were calling me up and saying, ‘Hey, come play this show’ or ‘come play this gig,’ or ‘come out and do this little tour.’ Since it was just me and my wife it made it a lot easier. She, at the time, was totally up for touring. And that was the only way I was kind of convinced to get back out on the road. (laughs) Because she was there.
To answer your question, Hot Water went on hiatus and I was just stuck with me and my guitar. That was fine by me. It wasn’t any different than what I’d been doing. I just put more focus on it.
Yeah, it’s nice to hear that background. The transition’s always interesting to me. So, when you were a kid, did you ever consider that there might be a time limit to both your tastes in punk rock and your performing it? It’s such a youth-style of music. Did you ever consider, ‘I’m going to be an old man playing punk rock?’ How did you feel about that?
Growing up, Hot Water, we always had talked about it like, ‘Yeah, hopefully, we’ll be 50 years old playing this stuff, you know?’ (laughs) It wasn’t until we started getting a little bit older when I realized that … It’s kind of hard to say, because Hot Water’s always kind of been a band that has always recreated ourselves with every record, I feel. We have a formula that we work with when writing songs, but the energy of the songs and just the whole drive of them is constantly changing, maturing. But, I don’t know. To me, I definitely see more of a longevity when it comes down to … And nothing bad against the boys or Hot Water Music or what it’s all about, just realistically speaking, it’s a lot easier to just … when everything falls apart, if I’m still physically and mentally able to write music and record songs, I think I can still do that.
And you’re touring with Social D, which is still doing its thing. And those guys are probably pushing 50, right?
They’re getting up there. (laughs)
What is it to you that makes folk and punk mix so well?
It’s a type of music that there’s not a whole lot to hide behind. For the most part, the way that both of those genres have always presented themselves is in a very straightforward and forthright way, where people sang exactly what they meant and they meant exactly what they sang. I’ve always seen a lot of parallels to it, because a lot of it’s very personal, but at the same time can be very political. I see that in both genres. But for the most part, to me, it’s always been music or songwriting or singing where you’re  just wearing your heart on your sleeve and you’re cutting yourself open and speaking as plainly and honestly as possible. I feel the same in both genres. Lyrically, nothing’s different to me, when writing my songs or writing Hot Water Music songs.
The film, It’s Better In the Wind: Why was it important for you to do that project? And how do you relate to it?
Yeah, that’s cool you saw that. My buddy Scott Toepfer is an independent artist, just like the rest of us out here, doing the best we can on the road. He’s a man that just believes in what he’s doing. He believes in his art. He believes in a vision. This was a fella who had a vision, an idea for a group of photos and he wanted to make it happen. To him, it didn’t matter about how many people saw it, or if he sold anything or made any money on it. It was just something that he really felt driven to accomplish. And I have all the respect in the world for that, and all the respect in the world for him, as an artist and as an individual.
He came to me and asked if I wanted to write a song for it, and he told me what it was about and I just completely related to it. He was talking about traveling, living a simple life with his best of friends and just getting out there and basically getting away from the rat race and the monotony of being stuck in a city or in a grid, and just getting away from it all with your best of friends and just smelling the roses and traveling.
After I started seeing some of the photographs and the footage, I ended up getting real fired up. I told him, ‘Send me some words, some phrases, some photos, some videos — whatever comes to mind. And let me see what I can put together.’ And in a day or two I wrote “The Fire, The Steel, The Tread.” I sent that to him and he loved it. And I just told him, ‘If you’re up for it, I’ll just keep writing until you tell me to stop.’ (laughs) I had a blast doing it. I’d love to do more stuff like that. It was just an idea and a whole movement and campaign that I completely believed in and supported.

What’s been your experience playing Nebraska?
I’m trying to recall the last time I played in Nebraska — it’s been a long time. The last time I was in Nebraska, we were snowed in on the 2009 Revival Tour, somewhere on I-80 for three days. We had to cancel a few shows. But for some reason that’s always been a place I haven’t played much at all. I know I’d love to. I know that we’ve met a lot of good people there and from there, so I’m looking forward to meeting some new folks and establishing some new ground there where we can come back on a regular basis.
Absolutely. We’re looking forward to having you. So what’s coming up next? There was a rumor about an album with Brian Fallon?
We’d planned to do that quite a while ago. That was last year. We had talked about it and we were going to write it while I was on tour with The Gaslight Anthem overseas. And we messed around a little bit with some tunes and it just got way too busy. They were just getting hit in every direction with press and responsibilities over there. And, at the same time, I was kind of right in the middle of trying to get together a Revival Tour for the states. So we both just got really busy and we kind of decided, man, it’s hard to write and record a record while on tour. (laughs) So we just kind of put the idea on the back burner. I ended up recording Covering Ground. He ended up recording The Horrible Crows stuff. And we just decided to put it on the back burner for the time being. But I’d love to do it. We still talk about doing some stuff down the road, so we’ll see. Maybe one of these days.
But as far as everything else, we’re right now in full swing of kind of working on the 2012 Revival Tour for the United States. And hopefully we’ll have some news for the people in a couple months. Aside from that, we’re just continuing Covering Ground, and supporting this record, and getting out there as much as possible. Hot Water’s planning on doing some more writing in the near future here and recording a new record next year and putting something out down the road. So, we’re busy. (laughs) We’re runnin’.
Final question: What have have you been listening to?
Partisan Records is a record label out of … New York (I think I’m right). Anyway, a lot of their releases. Sally Ford, Middle Brother, Deer Tick. There’s been a whole slew of bands that have kind of morphed into one … The Dawes Band, Delta Spirit, Deer Tick … and a lot of those guys did a project called Middle Brother. That record in particular has kind of been the soundtrack of our tours this year.
And of course, all the folks that you’ll see out on the Revival Tour. We listen to a lot of that. Dan Andriano just put out an incredible record. Dave Hause and Brian Fallon, of course. And then all the folks that joined us over there — Helen Chambers, Jimmy Islip, Sam Russo. Man, there’s a ton of great stuff out there. Greenland is Melting … I could go on and on. Possessed By Paul James (laughs).
Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska’s publisher. He recently shot a live video of Hot Water Music performing at this year’s The Fest in Gainesville. Contact him at andrewn@hearnebraska.org.

Andrew Norman (@andrew_norman) is Hear Nebraska's Executive Director. Reach him at andrewn@hearnebraska.org.