In a week, Chuck Ragan and band kick off a long spring tour in support of their new album, Till Midnight, at Slim’s in San Francisco. Fortunately for Nevada County locals, Ragan temporarily bids goodbye to his adopted hometown, with a Wednesday night concert at Clock Tower Records in Grass Valley. Doors open at 6 p.m., with Celtic duo Halfpence and Haypenny opening the show.
Ragan’s band is comprised of some of LA’s hottest young guns, including Jon Gaunt, Joe Ginsberg, Todd Beene of Lucero and Glossary and David Hidalgo Jr., son of the famed Los Lobos front man. Ragan has been a force in the music industry for more than two decades, but chooses to fly under the radar locally, seemingly more interested in what the area has to offer a fly fisherman. He has produced YouTube videos seen by more than 400,000 viewers worldwide, but can cruise the streets of Grass Valley and Nevada City unrecognized. Home is sanctuary and he likes it that way. I spoke with Ragan at Curly Wolf Coffee House in Nevada City and found him instantly engaging and fiercely passionate about the music he makes.
TK: There are a lot of truly talented artists and musicians living in this area that locals do not get much exposure to. You would seem to fit that category.
CR: In a lot of ways, I love where I live. My wife and I moved here (Grass Valley) about seven years ago. She’s a Bay Area girl, but I moved out to California from Florida, about 12 years ago when I fell in love with her. We ended up coming up here because we have a lot of friends in this area… We both love the outdoors, we live and breathe it, so when I’m not working, or out touring or in the studio making records, you’ll find me on the river, or out on my boat, or in the woods with my dogs… Last year I played something like 189 shows all across the world. When I get home, I get out every once in a while and play. One of my neighbors is an owner of Coopers in Nevada City and I’ve played there a couple of times and at Clock Tower Records and little places that I enjoy getting out and playing. My wife and I will get out and support shows at the Center for the Arts and here (Curly Wolf) for instance. We’ll get out and enjoy it, but for the most part, when I come home, it’s a healing place and a place of solace. I’m still constantly playing my guitar and music, but (laughing) most of the time it’s in front of my dogs while we’re sitting around the fire in my back yard.
TK: Talk a little about Clock Tower Records and your reasons for playing a show there.
CR: I feel really lucky in this day and age to even have a record store in my town. I travel all over the world and can tell you that record stores are dropping like flies. I’ve seen the decline in record sales and the hit that the entire industry has taken and I could talk until I’m blue in the face about how great it was back in the day when we used to sell records and this and that, but the way I see it, times are always changing and we either adapt to make it better or drop out and lose interest and don’t do anything to make art and music thrive. If you had told me 15 years ago, what the state of music would be like today, I wouldn’t have even been able to wrap my head around it. For me, there is and hopefully always will be, a community of people who still enjoy something tangible when it comes to obtaining music, listening to music, experiencing music. Records have a lot to do with that and I have all the respect in the world for record store owners, because it ends up being a labor of love. Record store owners are not making a ton of money these days.
TK: It’s kind of refreshing for me, to talk to someone like yourself who has been in the industry a while and is not bitter about what has happened to it. I remember having done an interview with the late Stephen Bruton (Solo artist, guitarist for Bonnie Raitt and model for the lead character played by Jeff Bridges in the Oscar-winning movie Crazy Heart) and he was one angry guy, when it came to discussing the business of music.
CR: I can’t say that I haven’t been bitter about it in the past, but something clicked in me a while back, that had to do with this big crossover to the tools that artists use now days to promote and notify, through social media like Twitter and Instagram. For me it started with My Space and when we talk about My Space now it feels like it was 30 years ago. (Laughing) I was still throwing cell phones out my van window 10 years ago, saying ‘I don’t want to do this.’ The thing is, there are still people out there with good intentions, still people out there who want to make a difference, still people writing songs for the feeling of it, rather than wanting financial gain or popularity. They play music for the love of it. There are pros and cons to everything. The way that people are able to have their music heard in just the blink of an eye is unbelievable. It’s a beautiful thing for new bands just starting out. In the old days, we would save up our money and make cassette tapes and would put all the money we had together and make 80 tapes and think that was too many. It might take us a couple of months to get rid of them all. If you had told me back then ‘oh yeah, you’ll be able to just hit a button and anybody in the world will be able to listen to your music,’ I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t have jumped at that in a second.
TK: Just as the industry has changed, you as an artist have also, moving from Hot Water Music through a string of solo records.
CR: Yes, I’ve been actively touring, making records on my own or within a band of friends for something like 25 years. About 20 years ago, I decided music was all I wanted to do.
TK: Your musical progression took you from being the member of an important and influential post-punk band called Hot Water Music to making critically and commercially viable acoustic music. Why have things played out that way for you?
CR: What a lot of people don’t know is that I was playing acoustic music a long time before I started playing electric music. Hot Water Music had a really strong run for about 10 years. We were road dogs, we travelled everywhere non-stop. We had a couple of years where we were on the road 10 months out of the year…that’s what got our name on records and in the press. But before Hot Water Music, I played my first show sitting in front of people with an acoustic guitar, something like 26 years ago. Even while I was in Hot Water Music, I was still recording and doing different acoustic projects…In 2005, we (Hot Water Music) went on an indefinite hiatus. We hit a wall really. We were getting burnt out. To get up and sing songs about being true to yourself, following your instincts and respecting your friends and your family, It struck me that if I didn’t really truly want to be there 100 percent, I was just pulling one over on myself and all the good people who were coming to our shows to support what we’re doing… At that point there was no question that we should shut it down and reevaluate who we were and why we were playing music in the first place.
TK: Tell me about your new album, Till Midnight and how it fits with your previous work?
CR: It was a fantastic session, a really enjoyable, inspiring experience. I’ve done a number of records with the label down in LA. (Side One Dummy) They took me on back in 2006 when Hot Water went on hiatus…I moved to California and continued writing, but just for me. I didn’t care about playing shows or making records, I just wanted to write. It’s always something I felt like I needed to do in a therapeutic sort of way. My wife was the one who just one day, while we were sitting around the kitchen, said ‘hey you should get out and record these songs before you lose them,’ so I did. I signed to Side One Dummy and have been really blessed to have a label that really cares about what I’m doing and I’ve done a number of records with them. For the newest one, I wanted to work with the same producer (Christopher Thorn) that I did on the last one. (Covering Ground) A lot of people know him as a guitarist and songwriter in Blind Melon, but he’s also a phenomenal producer and engineer…For this record I wanted to kind of “kitchen sink it.” I wanted to get all of the musicians together and just see what comes out…I wanted to dive into these songs as a group, rather than me just laying down a guitar and vocal to a click track and then layering stuff on top of it. I wanted to make a record.
TK: It sounds like the band really got to contribute to the project.
CR: Absolutely…I brought them to Grass Valley before a tour that we did. I sent them all the tunes and said ‘alright guys, learn this stuff and then come to my house and we’re just going to have a week of digging into this and we’ll have some fun too.’ I flew them out here and every morning I’d wake them up and take them out on the boat and (laughing) we probably did more fishing than we did playing music, to be honest. The whole point of bringing them out here wasn’t so much about working out the kinks in the songs, I wasn’t worried about that. All those guys are so professional; I knew that would happen organically. To me it was more important to bring my buddies together and have us all on the same playing field and bonding…that’s what sharing music is all about. So we spent the week working on the songs and one of the first things I told them was ‘hey my name may be on this record, but if anybody has any ideas, or something’s not clicking then speak up. Everybody’s welcome, it’s an open floor.’ I just wanted them to play and do what they do best. They are the most incredible group of musicians I’ve ever had the chance to share the stage with.