Chuck Ragan’s bracing new release Till Midnight once again confirms what the iconoclastic singer-songwriter’s fans have known all along: that he’s a deeply compelling songwriter and an effortlessly charismatic performer, as well as a true believer in music’s ability to illuminate and inspire.
Till Midnight’s ten typically impassioned new Ragan compositions embody the artist’s trademark mix of eloquent lyrical insight and catchy, forceful songcraft. The album’s formidable blend of head and heart is reflected on such new tunes as “Something May Catch Fire,” “Vagabond,” “Non Typical,” “Bedroll Lullaby” and “Wake With You,” on which Ragan applies his distinctively raspy voice and sharp melodic sensibility to vividly expressive tunes that reflect both his early grounding in traditional American music and his deep affinity for rock n’ roll.
“There’s a lot of love songs on this one,” notes Ragan, whose work has always shown a knack for addressing individual concerns as well as societal ones. “I love to write love songs because it’s the most powerful emotion. It’s what grounds us to this Earth and makes us want to fight to make the world a better place.
“I always just try to write from the heart and make the music as genuine as I possibly can,” he continues. “By doing that, I’m usually writing about whatever’s going on in my life. And when you’re living your life by wearing your heart on your sleeve, there’s not a lot to hide behind.”
Ragan is backed on Till Midnight by his longstanding combo the Camaraderie—guitarist/pedal steel player Todd Beene, fiddler Jon Gaunt and bassist Joe Ginsberg, plus new drummer David Hidalgo Jr., a member of Social Distortion and son of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo—along with multi-instrumentalist and Blind Melon member Christopher Thorn, Rami Jaffee of Wallflowers/Foo Fighters fame, Ben Nichols of Lucero, Dave Hause, Jenny O., Chad Price and Jon Snodgrass of Drag the River. Till Midnight benefits from sensitive production by Christopher Thorn, who not only performed on the record but helped it come to life in his own Fireside Sound studio in Silverlake, CA. Initial tracks were cut at Fonogenic Studios and assistant engineering efforts came from Joshua Stuebe, Samon Rajabnik and Davie Dennis.
In a musical life that spans close to three decades, Chuck Ragan has consistently worn his heart on his sleeve, and carved out a musical niche in the process. Over the years with many endeavors, Ragan has built a large and singularly powerful body of work whose honesty, immediacy and warmth have won the loyalty of a fiercely devoted international fan base that’s supported him through his various musical incarnations.
To give Till Midnight an appropriately organic, lived-in feel, Ragan gathered the musicians at his home in Northern California for a week of rehearsal, fishing and preproduction, before road-testing the new material in Europe.
“It was really the first time we all learned and rehearsed the songs as a group and laid everything down together,” Ragan explains. “It made a huge difference for everybody to have time to sit and breathe with these songs and let everything develop naturally. There was a feeling that I set out to capture and the guys there were able to help us capture it.”
Although its birth cycle may have been different, the honesty and urgency that distinguish Till Midnight have been constants in the musical journey that began in Ragan’s early years. His first musical memories came courtesy of his grandparents, Charlie and Joyce Murray, who played French and folk songs in traditional Cajun fashion on accordion and tambourine. Later, he would further his entertainer’s education from his mother, Geraldine Ragan, an evangelical ventriloquist, missionary, comedian and singer who toured and traveled the gospel circuit as Geraldine and Ricky along with Ragan and his brother Paul. It was around this time that Chuck began to pursue guitar after his paternal grandfather, David Ragan Sr, told him that “if you love playing that thing son, you’re a fool if you ever put it down and don’t let anyone tell you any different.” Chuck listened and learned even more about life on the road as his father Dave Ragan, a PGA & Ryder Cup golfer, USL coach and Baptist deacon, moved the family from their hometown in Texas to various cities in Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida. Chuck benefitted from this in more ways than one; it was actually Dave’s assistant club pro Roy Ridenour who taught Chuck his first guitar chords, playing standard folk and blues favorites. As the years and miles went on, Ragan soon found himself drawn to the energy and solidarity of the skateboarding and punk scenes. After playing in numerous bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Ragan teamed with Chris Wollard, Jason Black and George Rebelo, with whom he relocated from Sarasota, FL to Gainesville and formed Hot Water Music. The band quickly emerged as one of the American punk scene’s most distinctive and inventive units, winning a reputation as a riveting live act and staples within the punk community.
With the urge to always stretch out creatively, Ragan and Wollard created the acoustic project Rumbleseat in the late 90s, which released several singles and the album Rumbleseat Is Dead on No Idea Records. After Hot Water Music went on hiatus in 2005, Ragan enthusiastically returned to life as solo troubadour, exploring an expanded palette of acoustic and electric textures on the acclaimed albums Feast or Famine, Bristle Ridge, Gold Country and Covering Ground, as well as the stripped-down live set Los Feliz and a series of limited-edition subscription singles released in 2006 and 2007, and later compiled on CD as The Blueprint Sessions.
In 2008, Ragan and his wife Jill launched the long-running Revival Tour, a series of collaborative acoustic adventures featuring a diverse assortment of over 100 songwriters spanning many genres. Since its inception, the Revival Tour has visited Britain, Europe, Australia and Scandinavia as well as North America.
As all of his endeavours confirm, Ragan takes his musical mission seriously, drawing inspiration and emotional sustenance from the songwriters and music he surrounds himself with, his family and friends along with the close and loyal relationship with his audience.
“The way I see it,” Ragan observes, “we’re faced with tons of inspiration every day. Every step of this life has a way of teaching you something, showing you something, opening your ears and your heart to something. I have all these friends out there, and this community that supports me, who believe in what I’m doing and who believe in the power of music and the power of community.
“It’s a blessing and a privilege to stand on stage and play music for people,” he continues. “I meet so many folks out there, and they’re so hospitable and so kind and say such nice things to me about the songs. The support and the energy that I get from them is what makes it possible for me to keep doing this. And when I’m there and in that moment, it’s important to me to give it back to them as strongly as they’re giving it to me.”
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