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On the road with Chuck Ragan

Chuck Ragan performs in San Antonio live.
Chuck Ragan performs in San Antonio live.
(c) Diana Price

Next week, Chuck Ragan hits the road opening for Social Distortion, playing venues like the House of Blues and ending with three sold out shows at the 1300-seat Ogden Theatre in Denver. But tonight is another story. Tonight, Ragan isn't just playing a small dive bar in San Antonio, but the basement of a dive bar in San Antonio.

I walk right in the unattended side door and go downstairs with nary a bouncer in sight. Ragan and his band, consisting of Jon Gaunt, fiddle, and Joe Ginsberg, upright bass, are sound checking in the partial basement of Korova, with a few random stained couches, a tiny bar and gear for five acts piled to one side of the room. No stage, no stage lights, no house sound system, no one watching except the guy whose opening band has their own sound system and is helping Ragan sound check on it. And now me, of course. I try to settle onto one of the couches, but a couple of burly staff apologize and ask me to move, because they are taking the two big couches upstairs. I sit on a once-white loveseat and listen to Ragan playing under one dingy fluorescent light. I wasn't sure it was him at first, because the bearded man before me with a hat pulled low on his head looks nothing like the clean-cut, clean-shaven photos on his site, but the raspy voice is unmistakable. When they wrap sound check and Ragan approaches me, even I have to ask, "Are you playing here or is this the green room"?

It ain't the green room.

Ragan is a 20-year veteran of the music business, making a name for himself in the punk band Hot Water Music and it's folk side project, Rumbleseat, before venturing out on his own. Most of those years have been spent, literally, on the road, but his gypsy life started even before he went into music -- his mother is an entertainer and his father is a professional golfer, so living on the road is in his DNA, and perhaps part of what has allowed him to live a traveling life for so long. At the ripe old age of 37, Ragan feels he has been moving his whole life, and his website bio even draws comparisons to Jack Kerouac, although Ragan himself is reluctant to put himself in that group of artists, despite some obvious parallels.

A Life Lived on the Road
"We don't compare ourselves in any way with a lot of those beat writers, although I've definitely found similarities in the lives. I mean it's just that nomadic, kind of transient, always searching, always looking, kind of hungry life of seeing what's out there, testing the waters, taking risks, and kind of that fine line between living on the edge, but still staying in control, you know what I mean? Controlled chaos.

"I feel like it's one of those things where if you grew up with it and it's something you've always known, it's a lot easier to handle and deal with and understand. I think people who do this are wired differently. I know a lot of friends and loved ones who couldn't handle a week of this kind of life."

Nor the tremendous personal sacrifices required, and the toll on the personal life of people who spend most of their lives in vans or buses and hotels. Yet, so many musicians do just that. Not only do they do it, but swear they wouldn't trade it for anything. But even the most hardcore road warrior has their limits.

"I've lived this way for so long," says Ragan, "but killing yourself on the road for the majority of your life will take a toll on anyone. It's not a very family-conducive lifestyle. You have to make sacrifices to do it, I know what you mean as far as some people wouldn't trade it for anything, but I gotta say, I really look forward to slowing down, I look forward to having children, I look forward to having my world turned upside down in a completely massive life change."

At one point, Ragan tells how suffered burn out on the music business and tried to settle down and focus on his carpentry trade, attempting to build a business with his wife.

"There was a point I wanted out of the music business so bad I just naturally turned to my trade because I was able to make a decent living doing that...When I signed to the label, I remember sitting with Joe and Bill at SideOneDummy and saying, just so you know, I gotta be honest with you, I'm going to write and record records till the day I die, but if you're looking for somebody who's going to tour, I'm not that guy. Me and my wife are going north and starting a custom home building business."

Trying the 9-5 Life
They moved to a more rural area, but then the economy tanked and the housing market crashed, and they found themselves in a town where 60-70% of the men there were tradesmen like himself, all scrambling for less jobs and less money. It wasn't a conscious decision to go back on the road, but as the phone calls and gig offers started picking up, the inevitable became more clear. But not without some compromise.

"I tried it, running hard and doing everything I could, and the phone kept ringing -- 'Hey, come play this show. Alright, well cool,' and it just kept building. At the time I told my wife the only way I was getting back on the road is if she went with me, and we toured together," he laughs. "She was like, well great, no pressure on me! She didn't really want to go."

Not only did his wife come along for the ride, but has now taken an active role in management.

"I wouldn't be in the position I am if it wasn't for her and all the hard work she's done for my music and The Revival Tour and she's made a ton of sacrifices and never gets enough credit for what she's contributed. But we got a chocolate lab and now she's home all the time and I'm back on the road."

And back to the road taking its toll on family life. But for Ragan and artists like him, there really isn't any other choice.

"Songwriting, and making records -- it's my calling. I feel like it's something I need to do just as my own therapy to get through the day to day. It's almost something I have to do, rather than something I want to do. I mean, I want to do it, I have a passion for it, but it's more so something I have to get off my chest. To me, writing a song is taking a step back and looking at my life or this idea or whatever it is that's affecting me in a positive or negative way enough to move me to get it on paper. That's my chance to kind of step out and look at my life in a different perspective or a different light and figure out what needs to happen next. To become a better person or better husband or better friend or better citizen -- you name it. Expressing myself has always been just a form of therapy. That's why I feel like whether people are listening or not, I need to do it in my life. "

Breaking Ground with "Covering Ground"
And in order to focus on the music -- and its therapeutic aspects -- on his latest album, "Covering Ground," Ragan turned over the role of producer to an outside source, after self-producing his previous album, "Gold Country."

"We had a small budget to work with for the last record, but I just wanted control of it to be able to pay my guys and pay everybody what I felt like they deserved, and what they needed. But also to do it at my own pace and on my own time frame, and that was what I was shooting for. What I found out is that producing a record is a pain. What I never thought about was the fact of the matter is, I'm also my own worst critic -- asking myself all the time am I spending too much time on this one hang up, or did I not spend enough time. And at the same time the clock's running, the dollars are disappearing and the guys I had there are leaving in a couple of days, and I'm still trying to be creative and still enjoy the session.

"On this record, I wanted to find somebody who really understood what I was shooting for, just a like-minded person who had the same convictions I had about the record and just wanted to get into it full speed ahead. I wanted them to understand acoustic instruments, I wanted them to understand the potential of the tones and the sounds that would come from these three instruments I wanted to spotlight, which was guitar, fiddle and upright bass. Just keeping it simple. When I found Christopher Thorn, it seriously took about four or five minutes talking to him where I was like, this is the guy, no one else. I could push everything across the table and just focus on my parts and my vocals and my lyrics, and not think about if the money was running out, not think about booking the flights -- I just wanted to make a record."

And play that record on the road, even in this cramped little basement for about 50 people, a fair chunk of which are members of the four opening acts. It's like watching bands perform in your living room, and while Ragan is hanging out with me watching one of the bands, a fan comes up to tell him how great he is, and hands him a $100 Visa gift card -- for no reason. Just...because. As much as Ragan insists it's too much, the guy ain't taking it back. I kind of wait for him to say something to me when the fan walks away, but he doesn't say a word. Finally, between songs, I say "How cool was that?" But Ragan still doesn't answer -- even this hardened road warrior just sort of shakes his head in wonder without being able to speak, obviously moved by the gesture.

These are the kind of moments that don't happen in 10,000 seat arenas. Or even 1,000 seat clubs.

"As an artist or traveling musician, you can never take yourself too seriously," says Ragan. "You can never get caught up in believing the hype of whatever the hell you're doing because one second you're gonna be playing a sold out show at Shepherd Bush in London for 2,500 people and the next second you'll be in a basement somewhere with just a handful of people and half of them don't even really care. That's reality. That's life."

The Light at the End of the Tunnel
While Ragan's music may wander through some of the darker hardships and struggles in life, what separates it from so many is a persistent, unrelenting thread of hopefulness that runs through it. Like creating music itself, anything else simply isn't an option for him -- it's about embracing the bad with the good, and not backing down from life itself.

"I've always been a true believer, that all of this could be done tomorrow. I mean, granted, I want to make it home safe, alive and kicking to my wife, but the reality is, we have no idea what's gong to happen to us when we walk out that door. And you feel it's important to cherish what we have and love life and live it to the fullest while we have it."

"The thing about music, at least the way I grew up knowing it, feeling it, living it, it's been nothing but hopeful, it has to be hopeful. That's what music is there for, for me, in my life. The bands I go and listen to, the bands I enjoy, it's gotta be able to lift me up and make me want to keep my head above water. And I mean that's for songwriting in general."

Which isn't to say there aren't times when taking the easy route of apathy doesn't have an appeal -- maintaining hope can be far more difficult than simply giving up.

"Sometimes man, I'm not gonna lie to you, I just want to give up, throw in the towel and throw my hands up and say the hell with it. Fine I'm done. You have a good run, then you have a bad run. Sometimes its just a helluva a lot easier to throw your hands up and lay down and give up. I have a buddy, me and him always talk about this and years ago he said something to me, when I was real frustrated with something and I just felt like I was beating my head against a wall, and he as like 'Hey man, we either roll with the punches or we lay down. And for people like us, only one of those is an option. We're not gonna lay down. Can't do it. Gotta keep trying.'

"Some of the best art and some of the best songs, unfortunately, comes from suffering and tragedy and hardships. Again that goes back to what we were talking about having music there for us to help keep our head above water and having it there for us as hope. Something that we can kind of hang on to when we're falling off the face of the earth."

Or, he tells of the wisdom of another friend:

"I have a little Irish in me, and a buddy said to me once, late one night -- and I might have been a little bit inebriated at the time," he laughs. "I was complaining about something, and he said, 'Don't worry, an Irishmen is never truly drunk as long as there is a single blade of grass he can hang onto to keep him from falling off the face of the earth.'"

If that's the case, may we all have a little Irish in us.

The crowd gathers around the staging area, lit with one red and one blue bulb, with nothing but a couple of feet between them and the man they're there for. The music they're there for. It's dirty, it's grungy...yet it's uplifting, much like Ragan's music. The setting may be bleak, but the mood in the room is anything but as he plays such songs as "Let it Rain," "Meet You in the Middle," "Nomad by Fate," "For Broken Ears," and "Nothing Left to Prove."

It isn't the venue, or the size of the crowd, that matters, but the heart and soul of the people and the performance. And in a tiny little basement in San Antonio that night, there was plenty of that to go around.