Chuck Ragan on Getting Wiser and Settling Down
Whether he's banging out guttural post-hardcore, punk rock anthems with Hot Water Music or delivering heartfelt, jagged-yet-delicate country ballads on his own, Chuck Ragan's honesty and sincerity have always seeped through his songs. His everyman's music paired with his non-stop touring schedule reveals him as a songwriter with little to win and nothing to lose. He plays tonight at the Pageant opening for Social Distortion. A to Z recently caught up with Ragan as he was parked outside a truck stop in Odessa, Texas to talk about his recent projects and current tour with Social Distortion.
Michael Dauphin: How have the drives been so far? I hope you're avoiding all these tornadoes.
Chuck Ragan: It's been going well, man. We're just truckin' along through Texas. The boys and I actually wrote a song in the van today. That always helps eat the time. It's just the four of us and we're going streamline. No trailer, no bus, no nothing. It's great. I get to write quite a bit out here on the road.
Knowing how rowdy Social Distortion fans can get, what's it like getting up on stage each night playing your blend of folk-inspired Americana?
These shows couldn't be going any better. We did a leg with them along the West Coast back in January and February. We had our buddies Lucero and The Aggrolites with us, too. We were opening each show as the first band. And the response was unreal. The majority of the Social D crowd is actually my age or older. I know they show up and they're ready for Social D to blow the roof off the joint. I don't know what they're expecting [from us], but we just roll up with an upright bass, a fiddle and an acoustic guitar. We just do what we do. We have a good time and the reception has been unreal.
But, on this tour, we're direct support--we're the second band of three. By the time we go on now, there are more people in the room and they're excited. We really have to step it up and give it to them. People have been really into too. They've been stomping, clapping and hollering. They couldn't be better.
Not to discredit Feast or Famine (2007), but Gold Country (2009) was a huge leap forward for you--from the recording, to the songwriting in general. How were your goals different going into the two albums?
A lot of it was just constantly playing the songs live. I got more comfortable with playing with the boys, and just with my songwriting in general. We had George [Rebelo, of Hot Water Music and Against Me!] playing drums. A bunch of friends came and sang with us. Todd [Beene, of Glossary and Lucero] played some pedal steel. We just kept stacking things up. We had a great time and I was happy with how it turned out.
I read that you were planning to record with Christopher Thorn of Blind Melon. Have you already started recording with him?
We're done, buddy! It went so well. We couldn't have had a better experience. It's mostly just Joe Ginsberg on the upright bass, me doing my thing and Jon Gaunt playing fiddle. We also got Rick Steff (keys, accordion) and Todd Beene from Lucero. Brian Fallon from Gaslight Anthem did some singing. And Chris [Thorn] played some mandolin and dobro. Chris Phillips, from the Squirrel Nut Zippers, came in and laid down some percussion. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of the songs already worked out, but it was nice to get in there and add some bells and whistles here and there. We even managed to write a song while we were in the studio. We wrote it one day, I finished the lyrics that night, and we recorded the song the next day. We were just flying by the seat of our pants, working fast and having fun.
That seems to be how you operate as a songwriter. You tend to churn out material as it comes. Do you ever stop writing?
I don't, really. It's something I feel like I just need to do. Sometimes I don't even necessarily want to do it, but I just have to. It's a therapeutic thing.
Are there any songs you've recently written that have helped you get through some heavy shit?
Sure, that song I was just talking about. I'm calling it "Nomad by Fate." It's a burner, a real fast song. It's basically about always being on the road. I was born in Texas and ever since--looking back on my life--I feel like I've constantly been moving around. My family moved around from state to state when I was a boy. And then I got in [Hot Water Music] and I was always on the road. I lived in Gainesville, FL for about a decade and I was probably only there half the time. Now my wife and I are in California and I'm constantly on the go.
It's a simple song about dealing with all the pressures of being on the road while still trying to balance my family life at home. Here I am at 36 years old and, to tell you the truth, I can't wait to settle down. I look forward to having children and settling down in one place. The name of the new record will be called "Covering Ground." We're calling it that because the majority, if not all, of the songs were either written on the road or written about the road. That's all we've been doing, buddy. We just keep putting that peddle down.
There were rumblings of a potential project between you and Brian Fallon [Gaslight Anthem]. Are there any plans to pursue that?
Yeah. We had toured Europe together and him and I started writing material with plans to record while on that tour. When we got on the tour though, it was just too busy. We tried and it was just too tough. [Gaslight Anthem] is doing so well and blowing up, there just wasn't much time to spend on writing and recording an album. I think we're going to just wait for a time where we can really sit down and write together instead of sending things back and forth.
Has you perception of being a full time musician changed much since your early days with Hot Water Music?
It's changed here and there. The digital age has changed everything. It's a heck of a lot easier to let people know about tours we're planning and whatnot. I'm still learning though. Technology advances so fast that you really gotta keep up with it or hop off the train.
There are so many aspects that have changed. But when you get down to the bare bones of it [laughing], I'm still at the same truck stop outside of Odessa, Texas. I can't tell you how many times I've been here. My fingers still hurt, my feet hurt, my voice is gone... I'm still counting pennies and watching what I spend. Some stuff never changes, and I don't know that it ever will.