Music » Music Feature

The Ragan Years

Hot Water Music front man revives his folk rock roots



Raspy-voiced singer-guitarist Chuck Ragan is best known as the front man of Hot Water Music, the punk outfit he started some 19 years ago. But while that trio plays a style of music that caters to fans of old school punk rock like Bad Religion, Ragan's musical influences actually stretch back further into the past. Much further.

"I grew up in a conservative, Southern Baptist household," he says. "I was born in Texas and moved around my entire life. I went to Georgia and then Tennessee and Louisiana and then done to Sarasota, Florida and up to Gainesville and then out to California. I moved around my whole life. I was born and bred in the southeast region of the States. Rock 'n' roll wasn't allowed in my house. And definitely not punk rock. We had to sneak that."

He grew up listening to a wide swathe of traditional American music.

"I heard Cajun music and bluegrass and some country and mostly spirit driven songs — old gospel hymns and a little bit of old folk music," he says. "That's where the music stood in our household. My mother is an entertainer and singer and growing up. I was always in churches and around quartets and quintets and hearing that type of music shared. That seeped into the bloodstream."

Ragan has explored that side of his upbringing on his solo efforts, which can sound a bit like Nebraska-era Springsteen. And he's been able to channel that folk rock energy into the Revival Tour, a traveling acoustic concert that pairs him with like-minded punk rock singers and songwriters who play stripped down sets. The first tour took place in 2008 and featured unlikely candidates like Avail's Tim Barry, D Generation's Jesse Malin and The Lawrence Arms' Chris McCaughan, guys known more for their screaming than their singing.

"We had put together this idea that was something different that we wanted to bring to the table in terms of the scene and the community that we were traveling in and visiting," he says of the original concept for the Revival Tour. "This way of sharing music is an old school kind of way of sharing music in a simple grassroots fashion. You just strip down all the lines and barriers of who should be a headliner and who should be an opener. You get back to basics and you trim the fat in terms of taking out what we're used to seeing these shows. You'll see an opening band and half the time it's somebody you have never seen before and not as many people care and show much support. Then, there's a changeover and break and then the next band comes on and then it's the band that everyone came to see. For those of us who have traveled for a decade or more, it becomes monotonous. We wanted to put together an event where you immediately saw every person you came to see."

Even though Revival Tour artists play individual sets, collaboration can happen at any moment during the three-hour show, which rolls without any set changes or breaks. The current tour features a revolving door of artists that includes The Loved One's Dave Hause and Streetlight Manifesto's Toh Kay in addition to singer-songwriters like Jenny Owen Youngs and Rocky Votolato. The tour kicked off in early March and goes on until the end of April. The sets include both original music and the occasional cover.

"Last night, we played a few songs we hadn't played in ages and one song we never played before," says Ragan. "It varies and it's cool because it keeps everyone on their toes, especially as the show begins and we start playing. It's almost like you're on call for about three hours straight. You're in the backstage area entertaining people and you're waiting to be called out on stage."

Ragan is particularly proud of this year's line-up.

"Three quarters of the people on this bus never met each other before," he says. "You see us on stage or just come on the bus or come to the restaurant with us and you would never know it. People talk to each other like they've known each other for 20 years. It restores my faith in camaraderie and friendship and music and community. Rocky Votolato is absolutely wonderful and is a kindred spirit and nothing but positivity. It doesn't matter what your headspace is, you get around him and everything is okay. Jenny Owen Youngs is out here with us and she is an incredible woman and an incredible songwriter and a total joy to be around. She's fantastic."

The tour's revolving door means that guys like the Get Up Kids' Matt Pryor can only play a handful of dates, something that Ragan admits makes for a difficult parting of ways.

"I've been trying to get Matt Pryor on the tour for quite a few years," he says. "He's been a diamond in the rough. Hot Water Music and Get Up Kids were running in the same circles, but I haven't spent a lot of quality time with him until this tour. I don't know why I thought he was a timid fellow, but he is the exact opposite. It's a sad day. We lose him today and he jumps off the tour and we have a new group to be formed literally tomorrow at 2 o'clock.

"That's the beautiful but saddening thing about this tour," he continues. "You form these bonds and get in this groove and it just rolls. Then you realize it will revolve and turn into something else. It's tough but it's special. I like seeing how it moves and changes. That's what keeps people coming back. No one knows what will happen and who will pop in. You will never see the same show twice."

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