American Troubadours: Chuck Ragan

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The revelation that an acoustic guitar could be just as impactful as a distorted electric guitar was rather forced upon Chuck Ragan. Ahead of his 12th birthday, the music-obsessed youngster begged his parents for an electric guitar and amplifier, and was duly granted his wish – for one whole day.

“The next day I came home and there was an acoustic guitar lying up against my bed instead,” the Florida-born singer-songwriter recalls with a raspy laugh. “I suppose you’d say my parents were supportive, but selective.”/o:p

“The next day I came home and there was an acoustic guitar lying up against my bed instead,” the Florida-born singer-songwriter recalls with a raspy laugh. “I suppose you’d say my parents were supportive, but selective.”

By his own admission, the young Chuck Ragan was “a little bastard” to his parents, “a little rebel, causing havoc whenever I could.” Exasperated, Dave and Geraldine Ragan (a professional golfer and southern Baptist missionary/gospel singer, respectively) checked their teenager into a Gainesville ‘treatment facility’, a correctional institution for problem kids and young offenders. Each day for the next three years Chuck was required to keep a ‘Moral Inventory’, a daily journal reflecting upon his personal issues and his thoughts on the world beyond. When he was discharged from the facility at the age of 17, friends on the Gainesville punk rock scene encouraged Ragan to keep writing, but to marry his thoughts to music.

“I began to realise that music could be a release,” he says, “a tool to help us understand ourselves and to better ourselves and our surroundings. I never thought it could become a career.”

In truth, music has provided Ragan with not one but two careers, his role as frontman of hard-touring melodic punk band Hot Water Music being increasingly eclipsed by his emergence as a singer-songwriter of note. For Ragan, life as an acoustic troubadour represents liberation from the music industry machine – “life on the punk rock underground can be a grind, and at points I needed to take a step back and re-evaluate why I was playing music. I needed to love it again” – a notion he realised was shared by friends and acquaintances in the punk community. Since 2008 Ragan has been the lynchpin of the Revival Tour, a back-to-basics, freewheeling acoustic revue, inspired in part by his religious upbringing, which has seen artists such as Cory Branan, Brian Fallon (The Gaslight Anthem), Dave Hause (The Loved Ones) and England’s Frank Turner sharing stages across the US and Europe./o:p

“It’s a very old way of sharing music. It’s how families and communities always shared music,” Ragan says simply of the Revue. “It’s about coming together and uniting everyone in that space. I think it makes for an incredibly interesting show, not only for the show-goers but also because it really recharges the batteries of those of us who’ve done this for years.”/o:p

The approach seems to be working for Ragan. Till Midnight, the 39-year-old’s fourth studio album, is his most eloquent and mature record yet; a folk and bluegrass-inspired slice of rootsy Americana ruminating upon lost innocence, hard times and lives lived in quiet regret. That the album is streaming for free online is both a reflection on the realities of the modern music industry, and also of Ragan’s life-long belief that sharing music and ideas is more important than having commercial success with it./o:p

“When media interest in this ‘movement’ fades, some of us will continue doing what we’ve done for the past twenty-five years, whether people are listening to it or not,” he says. “Whether we’re playing on our front porch to a hundred and twenty people or playing the main stage of a festival. Some of us are in this for life.” /o:p

Till Midnight is out now on SideOneDummy.

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Read more on American Troubadours Lucinda Williams, Cory Branan and Justin Townes Earle.