Chuck Ragan Finds a Foundation in Vagabond Life

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Chuck Ragan’s raucous Till Midnight rocks (“Something May Catch Fire”) and rolls (“Vagabond”) with thunderclap immediacy. Several star guests — including members of Lucero, Social Distortion and the Loved Ones — fuel the fire.

“None of the collaborations were planned,” he says. “We were halfway through the session and had no idea any of them were gonna be on there. They were passing through town, and we were like, ‘Hey, we’re in the studio. Come on down.’”

CMT Edge spoke with the former Hot Water Music leader about his fourth solo album, his songwriting process and life on the road.

CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.

Ragan: I write constantly. Nowadays, it’s so much easier to archive stuff, and I collect these songs and ideas. Writing’s always just something that I do, that I feel I need to do. It’s a therapeutic release like it is for a lot of folks. A lot of my stuff makes it into the songs, but I’d say three-quarters never see the light of day.

Does not releasing so much material frustrate you?

No, that’s fine. I think the stuff that doesn’t make it on the record’s just as important as the ones that do. It’s all part of the process, whether it makes it out or gets burned in the fire pit out back. Each is just as crucial. My rule of thumb is to normally have at least twice as many songs as I need before digging into a new record. I pulled together maybe 35 or so for this record.

How did “Something May Catch Fire” come to you?

That’s a love song. My tourmates and I live life in transit and are running so fast constantly, but in the end, we’re just like anybody else. We have responsibilities at home. We have duties and people that we love, but the one main difference is that the time we get to spend with them is just so miniscule sometimes.

That song was inspired by a time when I was doing massive touring overseas and back and forth, and it was about this moment where I was flying from Germany back to the States to Australia. My girlfriend who became my wife and I had a rendezvous point. We cherished that time together to the best of our ability. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. (laughs)

Fair enough. You’ve said you believe in music’s ability to inspire. Explain.

Absolutely. At a young age, I found a group of folks who were people who believe in music as a way to overcome obstacles, a way to help us come together and find our own answers. That was a big part of what built the foundation for the way I see music and interactions with people through music, not to mention growing up with my mother. My mother’s an entertainer.

What kind?

She’s a ventriloquist who travels in evangelism. My younger brother and I grew up touring with her. She mostly travels within churches and prisons, and she’s done it on her own the majority of her life and still does it today.

As a teenager, I battled my folks and rebelled, and once we found a great relationship, I found this newfound respect for her work ethic and how she interacts with people. One day, it just hit me, man, I’m not doing anything different from what my mother does. I’m just doing it in a different genre. It becomes more of a mutual respect and admiration.

Did something specific make that click?

Oh, many things. I’m 39, so I’ve made mistakes, like all of us. I come from an old Southern Baptist household, and I’ve found as a kid going to church and being around spirit-driven music and running with my mom was just part of our lives.

When I was a teen, I found skateboarding, and that brought an alternative lifestyle and alternative music and all this rebellion. It sent me in a whole new direction. It was exciting, but my folks didn’t agree with it, of course.

What was your dad’s take?

My father’s a professional golfer. He wanted me to follow sports, and I was good, but I hit this point where I was like, “Nope. I want to play music and skateboard.” We battled on that. As a teen, I didn’t do too well in school. I was always doing what I wanted and skipping and honestly breaking my poor mom and dad’s heart. I was a little bastard. It took making a lot of mistakes and growing. There were a lot of amends to make.

What do you regret?

It’s hard to regret anything because I love where we are now and where I am in my life. I’m married to an incredibly strong, beautiful woman, and I have a wonderful family. I feel lucky. I feel if I’d have done anything different, even the rotten times, I wouldn’t be in this position.

The song “Vagabond” comes straight from that life, right?

Yeah, “Vagabond” is a traveling song. It’s about finding yourself in different towns nonstop while in a relationship and always being one step, one flight away from home. The guys in Lucero helped me out with both that and “Something Might Catch Fire.”

It works out the same with us when we’re traveling around. Sometimes we go visit buddies in the studio and end up singing on something. One thing I wanted to make clear with this record is that my name may be on there, but I want this to be an open floor and to do this together. If anybody has anything to add or take away, speak up.

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