Interview: Chuck Ragan talks Revival Tour, influences, and what comes next

“This tour bonds people, it brings people together.”

Over the last couple decades, Chuck Ragan has earned a reputation for being one one of the hardest working performers, and one of the most genuinely good human beings, in the game.  In addition to his duties as co-frontman of Hot Water Music, one of the most seminal, genre-defining groups of the last twenty years, the Ragan-led Revival Tour is now in its sixth year of criss-crossing the US and combining a wide range of artists. Though currently in the midst of a staggering thirty-seven shows in thirty-seven days, the inimitable Ragan found time to chat with us about all things Revival Tour. From a discussion on how the lineups are put together, to some of the spontaneous moments from this tour and tours past, to how (and if) he’s able to balance a successful solo career, his responsibilities to HWM, and his home life, this was one of the more interesting and inspiring interviews I’ve had the privilege of conducting. Click here to check it out.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): What went in to putting this year’s Revival Tour lineup together? It’s obviously a little bit different; Rocky Votolato has played shows before, Dave Hause has played shows before, but what was the process behind putting this year’s lineup together?

Chuck Ragan: The way that the lineups come together changes pretty regularly. It usually happens in a few different ways, either we find artists through word-of-mouth, we find artists either from other artists themselves or their management or, you know, their representation submitting them. Or we find artists from simply just hunting them out ourselves. And this year, it kinda happened on all those levels. It’s been really cool, to have a tour that’s evolved over the last six years, and just to see how it all comes together.

I was out on tour…on the previous Revival Tour, Tim McIlrath came out and guested on our Chicago event. And he loved it…he’d known of the tour before, and he told me then, last year, that “man, I’d love to do one of these one day.” And then when Hot Water was out supporting Rise Against this last year, he said it again and he kept showing interest. And man, I mean, it was an honor that he cared as much to put his name on it and be a part of it and share his music with us. That’s how he came into play. Jenny O we found through our agency; my agent represents her as well, and he brought her up and said “you’ve gotta check this young lady out, she’s fantastic.” And I did and that’s how that worked. Jenny (Owen Youngs), Rocky, Dave, they’ve been on the tour before. Toh Kay kinda came out of the woodwork…

Yeah, he definitely did

And, man, it’s been really cool. And Matt Pryor is someone who I’d been trying to get on the Tour for four or five years, and he always wanted to do it, but it was always … something would come up last minute or he couldn’t commit. There had been a couple of tours where we were almost able to have him on and it just didn’t work out. But it finally did, and he was just wonderful, man. He really got the concept and was great with the crowd. He was always down for collaborating, so it all came together.

Yeah, I was a little bummed that Matt didn’t make it up this far. I was able to catch him solo once before in a small show, where he opened up for Brian Fallon up here at a last minute small show a few years ago, and he was great…

Oh yeah

…and he does seem like the kind of person who would get what Revival’s all about.

Yeah, he fit right in. We had a lot of fun again. In fact we’re about to see him again in Lawrence (Kansas)…he emailed this morning and said “hey, we’re barbecuing, see you in Lawrence,” so he’s gonna come on out and get back up on stage.

That’s rad! Has the process gotten easier to pick artists over the years? I can imagine that the concept was a little foreign to people in ’08 or ’09 or whatever, but has it gotten easier to take people on because they get it at this point?

A little bit easier, but it’s never an easy thing to pick five or six artists out of the couple hundred that you want to get on the tour (*both laugh*). You know, I’m surrounded by amazing songwriters and musicians, and it’s always kind of a tough part to put together a unique and eclectic lineup, where not only are you bringing different genres of music together, but different types of people, different walks of life together as far as the show-goers go in the same room. And that’s really important to me, man. This tour bonds people, it brings people together. A lot of people show up as strangers and they leave with a new favorite artist in their pocket or a lifelong friend, and just means more than everything and more than I ever dreamed this tour could accomplish.

You could sort of witness that firsthand by watching the merch booth after the show because the amount of people leaving with a Toh Kay CD and a Jenny Owen Youngs CD and a Dave Hause shirt was really cool to watch. Because you know that not everybody knew everybody coming in.

Oh yeah. Sure enough.

Is there a type of artist you think, obviously no names, but is there a type of artist that the Revival thing just doesn’t work with? Like, are there people that just haven’t meshed over the years or that just haven’t gotten it over the years?

You know what, I can honestly, whole-heartedly say, that out of all the artists, and we’ve hosted over a hundred artists on the tour in the past six years… Out of over a hundred, absolutely every single person was great to work with. There’s always some people who get it a little more…no, actually, I can’t say that. They all get it, they all understand how it works. There are some people that are more comfortable with the loose structure and the collaboration and the off-the-cuff, learning a song back stage and jumping on stage and playing it five minutes later (*both laugh*). Because that happens on the tour. You never know what’s going to happen on the tour. Sometimes we’ll have special guests show up, and last night is a perfect example. We rolled into Milwaukee and I said “Hey gang, Trapper Schoepp & The Shades are gonna come down, and we’ve got a special guest this evening.” And we rearrange the stage, we rearrange our set, and sometimes we learn songs with these artists that just pop in and out last minute, and say “Right on, let’s do it.” And we go for it.

And some artists are more comfortable with that then others. And not that that’s a bad thing to not be comfortable with that, everyone has their own comfort zone and we respect that. But I feel really, really lucky that out of all the artists that we’ve had over the years, we haven’t had terrible experiences. I think a lot of it is attributed to the fact that, man, you’re walking onto a stage or onto a bus or into a room full of people that are just having the time of their lives, and sharing music, and getting to know each other, or have been friends for years, and there’s this electric feeling, this camaraderie that’s rolling around on this bus that seriously is just infectious. You know, you can’t have a bad time. If you’re coming into that…the egos don’t exist, the hierarchy doesn’t exist, and it’s hard to get in a slump when you get around this bunch.

Do you feel like you have to, or have you ever had to, explain that to people when they come in? OR do people just sort of absorb it…

Oh sure, I mean, people kinda get it right away, you know what I mean. Some people who I’ve invited down are like “well, how exactly does this work…what time am I going on?” And I’m like “we’ll figure it out, just get down here and we’ll figure it out.” (*both laugh*) And then I explain, and they say “Well, who’s opening?” And it’s like “we all are.” “Well, who’s headlining?” “Everybody!” (*both laugh*) It’s always kinda been tough to explain. It usually takes somebody to see it one time, and within the first five minutes they go “Ah, I see.” And then they love it. It’s hard not to love, it’s just an inspiring, eclectic, fast-moving show.

Do you think this way of doing it…touring is obviously hard work, especially when you play, what 33 shows in 33 days or something like that…

We’re doing 37 in a row right now… (*both laugh*)

Which, as a non-touring musician…I can’t wrap my head around working 37 days in a row, nevermind putting in the kind of effort and emotion that you do. I mean, I think it’s probably safe to say that nobody really leaves anything on the table at a Revival Tour show, everybody seems to be raising each others’ game. Do you find that it’s easier or harder to tour this way than past solo tours or Hot Water Music tours?

I think it’s easier, personally.

Yeah?

Yeah. Because there’s more stimulation. When you’re on tour with a band and you’re with all the people that you’ve known for ages, it’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong. There’s wonderful things about that. But you’ll find that you’re kinda…you get caught in this machine, you know. And there’s pros and cons to that. The pros are that you become this well-oiled machine and your show just gets tighter and everything gets better and better. On this tour, we’ve got artists coming in and out all the time. It’s always changing, so it’s always organic and live and…you can tell just watching it or being there or playing…we’re looking at each other like “What’s gonna happen next?” (*both laugh*) And there’s just kind of this electricity. But, to your question, when somebody’s feeling down, feeling weak, sick, whatever, you’ve got so many people around you that are pulling a lot of weight that everybody kinda bands together (*Then the call dropped. Stupid cell phones*)

CR: Wow, I just kept talking, I don’t know where I lost you (*both laugh*)

I don’t know, I’m not sure if that was my end or you’re end. I apologize if that was my fault.  Sorry…I think we left off  talking about if somebody’s having a bad day or if somebody’s not feeling well, everyone pulling each other up.

Oh yeah, exactly. So, to answer your question, this way of touring is easier. It moves faster, you’re busier, you’re working harder, you’re always kind of on point, you’re always on call, you’re always learning something else or honing another song. As opposed to just showing up to sound check and then just playing a bunch of songs that you already know and you’ve been playing for years.

Do you think that, having done Revival for six years or whatever it is now, do you think you could do, or would you even want to do, just a solo Chuck Ragan tour at this point?

Oh yeah, sure. A lot of these Revival tours have come with us playing some big shows, really big shows. And that’s wonderful, and that’s great, that was the goal, to share this music with a lot of people and to showcase songwriters that we believe in to a lot of people. But, you know, I still love the intimacy of stepping up into a coffeehouse and playing to fifteen people. And I don’t know, but I can’t say that I’d ever lose that. And the beautiful thing about playing solo and having that opportunity is that, hey, if all else fails, I could grab my guitar and I could go to that coffee shop across the street and just walk up and say “Hey, do you mind if I play a few songs and throw my hat on the floor?” (*both laugh*)

Speaking to that a little bit…I’ve had the privilege of interacting with a lot of people that view you, both collectively with Hot Water Music and you personally as an inspiration to them in terms of why they keep doing what they do and why they work as hard as they do. I think Dave Hause is a good example, I was privileged to sit down with him when he was here opening for Flogging Molly recently, and your name came up a couple of times as an influence for why he works the way that he does and why he works as hard as he does, and the sort of “if you ain’t playing, you ain’t working” ethos…

(Laughs)

I wonder who you have, and not to sound all ‘Entertainment Tonight-ish’ in how I ask the question, but who is your ‘Chuck Ragan’ where that’s concerned? Who did you follow in the footsteps of as you were coming up?

That would probably, definitely, be my mother. Her and my grandfather, her dad, my paw paw Charlie Murray. We just lost him a couple months ago and, you know, some people live life with a work ethic that there’s just no point in complaining. There’s no sense complaining, you know? If you’re able to work and put food on the table and make ends meet and have a family, what’s the point in complaining? My paw paw was one of those men. He tore his body and his hands to shreds working for a living, working for his family, to better all of our lives. And he wasn’t a wealthy man at all. He was an old, dirt, dirt poor, old Cajun rice farmer.

Oh wow!

Yeah, he was a rice farmer and he hunted alligators and sold hides. He fished for a living and he grew food, and he was a rancher. He didn’t have much at all, and he never complained about that. He felt like if there was food on the table, if there was a deer in the barn…Growing up around that ethic and that heart, man, you would have never known. I look back and the way I felt about him, he seemed like the wealthiest man in the world, you know? We learned a lot of lessons there.

Do you think there are a lot of people in the scene that have that sort of a work ethic? To me, I feel like, I guess in the punk-related scene, there seems to be more of that than in the bigger music world. There seem to be more people who are willing to work hard and, you know, play 8 shows in 7 days or whatever, and to get out there and do it. To me, that seems like it’s unique to this scene, for lack of a better word. I don’t know if you’d agree or disagree with that…

Well, I mean, I’m sure it varies from scene to scene. I know some people in what you’re calling the punk scene that are probably some of the laziest people I’ve ever met in my life (*both laugh*).

Duly noted.

And vice versa, I’ve known some country artists who aren’t. So, I don’t know man, I think it’s all how people where born and bred and what they took away from how they were brought up. I think a lot of it is upbringing, I really do. You know what I mean? And not just with music but with anything. Any type of trade or art or you name it. You grow up and you learn a foundation and you start building your life around the foundation that you yourself, and your loved ones or your mentors helped you kinda get started in the first place. Some people have a strong work ethic and some people just either never had it or simply don’t care to have it. And I can’t knock anybody for wanting to sit around on a couch all day. It’s comfortable! I like couches (*both laugh*)… but I personally go crazy…

Yeah, you strike me as the kind of guy who would probably start crawling out of his skin after a few too many days of that in a row.

Yeah, when I get home from tours, I always say that I’m gonna take a good three or four days and just stay in my pajamas all day and lay around with my dogs and my wife. And I’m usually out in the yard after about three hours. (*both laugh*) Doing something. But I like laying around here and there.

Do you think you’re at a point now where, obviously Hot Water Music has been back for a couple years and made new music last year…do you think you’re at a point now where you’re able to have sort of a balance to work both of them going forward or is that even a goal at this point?

Honestly, if you want to know my honest opinion right now, I don’t know. If I’m taking on Hot Water on top of my own stuff and Revival…just being honest with you, man, I don’t know what’s going on right now. I’ve got a ton of plates spinning, and I either need to start carefully taking them off those points or they’re all gonna start crashing, you know. So it’s kind of a real delicate time and a real, you know, tough time right now for me. I’m just trying to figure out how to balance all this and still be the man that I need to be at home for my family. I mean, that’s the goal is to find that balance, but boy I haven’t been doing it the past couple years here. I’ve just been beating myself into the ground and bouncing back and forth between Revival and my stuff and Hot Water.

I suppose at some level it’s a good problem to have, meaning that all of those things are going well. At least professionally, if Revival is going well and it’s popular and Hot Water is thriving, you know, it seems like it’s a good problem to have, as difficult as it might be while you’re going through it.

Yeah, it is a good problem to have. But the point is, you know, if I burn out, then I’m not doing any good to anybody. And that’s what I have to be careful of, you know what I mean. But you’re right, it’s all doing well here and there, you know.

Yeah, but how you keep them all going at the same time I marvel at from afar.

Not a whole lot of sleep and way too much coffee. (*both laugh*)

I can only imagine. Now that Revival seems like it’s here to stay, do you have any sort of dream acts that you think would be really cool to have on the tour? Like an artist that people wouldn’t really be expecting, or a big name, or a wishlist of people you’re looking to get out for a leg at a time?

There’s a ton of people and I could go on and on with that. Sara Watkins, Jason Isbell. You know, for sure, that’s a long, long list.

Though I’d imagine that you could put on, you know, a seven hour show every night and still not fit everybody in with the amount of influences involved.

Quite possibly! You never know until you go and give it a shot.

So what’s next, you’re probably, what, two-thirds of the way through Revival now?

Yeah, we’re almost three-quarters of the way through. But like I said before, we’re doing thirty-nine shows total, and we had a day off on the third day and then playing straight through the rest of the tour. So we’re doing thirty-seven consecutive gigs. I want to say we’re up around twenty-three or twenty-four shows into that.

What comes next for you? Are you taking the summer off to go fishing or are you writing…?

I sure am. I’m writing, I’m doing a lot of writing right now. But I just need to get home. I need to be home with my wife and my dogs and get away from the road. I’ve got a ton of chores and work around the house. So I’ll take the summer, and I’ve got some issues with my family back in Louisiana that I’ll be taking care of. So, just family time, man. Personal time.


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