Chuck Ragan might not be the first folk-punk poet but he certainly is one of the best. Ragan’s latest album Till Midnight (his fourth album) sees the singer-songwriter call upon the spirits of Springsteen, Neil Young and more, bringing listeners on a memorable journey through America’s heartland that touches upon universal topics that nearly everyone can appreciate.
The MusicNerd Chronicles had the pleasure of speaking with the amiable Chuck Ragan last week where we discussed the similarities between folk music and punk rock among other topics:
At first glance, a lot of people might not consider there to be many similarities between folk music and punk rock when in fact guys like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were among the first to raise awareness of social and political causes via their music. Do you see close ties between these two genres despite them being very sonically different from each other?
I have always seen a lot of parallels between the two but I think the same could be said about a lot of different styles of music if you sit down and really closely examine them. Songs can be personal or forthright and angry. They can be political, a vehicle for social justice or just outright rebellion and expression.
What kind of music were you exposed to when you were growing up?
I grew up in a family where I was surrounded by a lot of Cajun French music but my folks were also fairly religious. I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock and roll. But then as a teen, I found skateboarding and it opened up a whole new world to me, musical and otherwise.
I’m assuming your musical tastes shifted once you got into skateboarding?
Definitely. It was a whole new lifestyle. The music was aggressive, rebellious and angry. It was just what I needed [laughs]. We would skateboard in front of my friend house, listening to stuff like The Germs and GBH. My friend’s Dad would help us build skate ramps and every once in awhile, he would take control of the music, playing stuff like Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie and CCR. Eventually, all this music we were listening to became one and the same.
What was it about the power of music that compelled you to start writing your own songs?
I found the songwriting vehicle at a young age and met a lot of wonderful people that showed me that music was about expressing yourself. It was a way to understand yourself and how to overcome obstacles. Some people gravitate towards music as a means to make money or be a pop star where I just wanted to write songs and share them with people. I feel very lucky to be able to do that.
This is the second record you’ve made with Chris Thorn (Blind Melon). Tell me a bit about your friendship and what you think makes teaming up with him so successful.
I can never say enough good things about him. Chris and I have more or less found our own language when we work together. There is a certain stride you hit when you really connect with someone like the way Chris and I have. That chemistry is so important because if that isn’t there, it can be like beating your head against the wall. You may never find the full potential in the songs or the movements. Chris is such a positive force to have around. He is the kind of producer that lets me be the artist and the songwriter I am but isn’t afraid to step up when we are off track. That’s what I need in a producer; someone not afraid to speak up when needed. He really helped make this record shine.
You also relied more upon your band this time in terms of input and direction relating to the songs.
When Joe Ginsberg, Jon Gaunt and I sat down to talk about how to make this record different from the last one, we decided to take on a drummer as well as a pedal steels player. And right before our eyes, in a very organic kind of way, the band came together. I definitely had a vision of what I wanted this record to be but it was admittedly pretty cloudy until the five of us got together for the first time. In the first week of pre-production though, I wanted everyone to understand that even though it’s my name on the record, I wanted them to feel as though they were able to contribute ideas and to not be afraid to step up to the plate. The energy, mindset and outlook behind this record was amazing.
An edited version of this interview was published in the May 29, 2014 edition of Here Magazine