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Chuck Ragan discusses folk transition

May 1, 2014

By Jordan Gonzalez

Chuck Ragan knows a little bit about what it means to rock. The gravelly-voiced front man of punk rock band Hot Water Music has head-banged, shouted and shredded countless times since the early 90s. With his impressive stature and his grizzled beard, he fits right in the punk rock scene, with all its moshing and aggressive nature.

But don’t let the din of Hot Water’s distorted guitars or the tough guy look fool you – Ragan is as down to earth as any, from his personality to his musical style. He stopped by The Grog Shop on April 17 with his latest act, “Chuck Ragan and The Camaraderie” — a five-piece folk band — to support his latest release, “Till Midnight.”

“Let’s go to the trailer,” he suggested, to avoid the noise of the fans and practicing musicians who were beginning to flood in The Grog Shop. As soon as he entered, he fished for a beer in the cooler, pulled out a bag of chew and dropped down on one of the chairs in the luxurious but rugged trailer.

While the transition from punk rock to folk music may seem absurd, Ragan explained in-between sips of his beer how natural that transition actually was. He was raised in Texas and Louisiana as a child, living a very outdoorsy lifestyle, complete with constant hunting, fishing and camping. Having the Texas and Louisiana countryside as his playground and participating in outdoor activities wasn’t a novelty or really even an option for him — it was what he knew.

“It never felt like a sport,” Ragan said. “It felt just as important as taking a walk or going to the grocery store or reading a book. It was just part of life, it was the way we lived.”

Besides, he said, his parents were the biggest influence. His dad loved to fish and his mom, a “woodsy tomboy,” was the first person who taught him how to clean a fish.

His music was inevitably influenced by his surroundings, he said. His first recollection of music was his grandpa playing French Cajun tunes from his accordion and his grandma keeping rhythm with a tambourine.

“That’s what it was — Cajun, Gospel, bluegrass — a lot of spirit-driven stuff just from growing up in the church.”

Growing up in a Southern Baptist household meant a lot of Gospel, bluegrass, and Cajun music (from his mother’s side of the family).

“I wasn’t ever really allowed to listen to rock and roll,” Ragan said. “Definitely not punk rock. I didn’t even know what punk rock was until I was 12 years old or something.”

He was introduced to a guitar when he lived in Louisiana by an “old folky” guy who played Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs. Ragan would play along with him, learning his first guitar chords.

On the dawn of his teenage years he discovered skateboarding, which was at the same time he discovered punk rock. With that came a different lifestyle and his music spectrum exploded. He discovered alternative rock, metal, rap, and all kinds of genres that weren’t in his house growing up.

“Friends used to make me mixtapes, and a lot of the times I had never even heard or knew who it was, they just gave me all these tapes,” Ragan remembered. “I used to sneak them and go to bed listening to them. It drove my parents crazy.”

But his discovery of fringe genres didn’t erase the folk roots that were so ingrained in his blood. This wasn’t a situation of rebelling against the music of his childhood. During his skateboarding years, he and his friends had an older buddy who would build their skate ramps. Whenever that friend was present, he’d listen to his music, which ranged from Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other classic folk and rock.

In the meantime, they would just keep skating.

“That music just kind of became just part of the day,” Ragan said. “And it just became this seamless soundtrack to our lives.”

For those who attended the show later that night, this startling musical contrast with a backdrop of skateboarding and fishing flowed effortlessly. The Camaraderie, with all its fiddling and double-bassing, isn’t “your everyday singer-songwriter band at all,” Ragan said.

“We are high-energy. We like to get our own blood moving, get it cranking. And I think people gravitate to it. It’s just good energy, the fans and the supporters that support the shows.”

High energy would be putting it lightly. The fans were antsy after two opening acts.

Cleveland-based acoustic act “Meridian” played a very calm, completely acoustic set. After that was the current Social Distortion guitarist Johnny “Two Bags” Wickersham and his solo band, who kicked the atmosphere in the next gear with his rock and roll beats and tunes. Then came Ragan, who instantly got the crowd dancing and singing with his new track, “Something May Catch Fire,” a fiddle-infused ballad about leaving town with a loved one.

Ragan’s scratchy voice tore through the rambunctious crowd, and he kept the energy high until his final songs. Ragan’s band, which includes Social Distortion drummer David Hidalgo, long-time friend and fiddler Jon Guant, bass and double-bass player Joe Ginsberg and former Lucero member Todd Beene, who rocks the pedal steel guitar and electric guitar.

Ragan said it should be no surprise that he and many other rock and metal artists have had successful folk or country side-projects. Aaron Lewis of Staind, for instance, has country solo project and Kid Rock, who many know from his hard rock days has dabbled in everything from country rock to rap.

“A lot of people ask nowadays ‘why is it that all these punk rockers are playing folk music?’” Ragan said. “The thing is that it’s been going on a lot longer than people have paid attention to. I think the question is more so, why are people paying attention to it.”

Citing himself as an example, he noted he always was listening to folk and often playing it.

“That’s the way it is with a lot of genres though,” he said. “People gravitate to something underground, usually it’s something not as popularized. And for some reason it gets hype and media get into it and then it blows up. You can only talk about the same subject for so long before people get tired of it and it’s like, what else?”

He said musicians go through cycles to determine what music will stand the test of time.

“For us [musicians] it seems like there has always been a lot of parallels between alternative music and folk music,” Ragan said. “There is a lot of very similar things. They can both be extremely personal, they can both be very political, they can both be angry or insightful.”

It all comes down to his love of music he said. He feels comfortable in both the punk rock scene and the folk rock scene. Whether it’s a family who comes to his folk rock show or a group of wild college kids who know him from Hot Water Music, he loves the energy and how music brings people together.

In the meantime, he is enjoying the current tour and the amazing dynamics he and his band members have.

“We’re traveling with a bunch of people that we just really admire and respect and that we’ve known for a long time,” Ragan said. “And we’ve traveled with before, which always makes it that much easier, especially when you’re living together. We’re around each other 24/7.”

He said he is honored with the attention “Till Midnight” has received so far (it was streamed on Rolling Stone’s website), and he will be focusing on The Camaraderie for now.

“Right now I need to kind of pull the reins on myself,” he said. “I have the tendency to get a lot of plates spinning.”

But, don’t forget that he’s a punk rocker, too. Ragan said to expect a reunion of Hot Water Music again this fall, as 2014 is their 20th anniversary.