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The restless kind

Hot Water Music's Chuck Ragan keeps the gaslight burning



How busy is Chuck Ragan? Let me count the ways. There is, of course, his present solo tour, sandwiched between sessions for his new studio album. Hot Water Music, his exceedingly influential Gainesville, Fla., punk band, is back in the studio for their first album in more than seven years, and will be on tour this summer for the second time since their 2006 hiatus. Ragan's also collaborating on an album with Brian Fallon, frontman of last year's tourmates Gaslight Anthem.

Naturally, this is all in addition to Ragan's annual Revival Tour, a sort of folk-punk hootenanny, now into its fourth year and just back from its first international exposure in Australia.

When we manage to catch up with Ragan, the sometimes-carpenter has just spent a leisurely day clearing his North California yard in the aftermath of several harsh storms.

"I was raised as a worker," Ragan explains. "I gotta keep moving. When I come back from the long runs, I always tell myself I'm just going to sit around in my pajamas for a few days, but it usually lasts about eight hours. I have to get up and do something. There's always work to be done."

Though many associate Ragan with punk rock, folk and Americana have long been part of his life. His parents were Southern Baptists and there was always gospel, bluegrass and Creole music in his house growing up. While the first guitar he picked up was an electric — "they were kind enough to give me 20 minutes [of making noise] and then my dad rammed in, picked it up and I never saw it again" — he learned to make music on an acoustic.

"Whatever you were exposed to as a youngster is going to leach out somewhere along the line," says Ragan of his roots music fascinations. "Even before Hot Water Music, a lot of us were doing stuff like this, but we were all young, full of angst and vinegar, wanting to turn it up and just howl at the moon — I never stopped doing this and never stopped writing."

Compared to the chunky crush of HWM, Ragan's solo approach has an old-fashioned austerity, although his gruff baritone's just as rousing and exultant as in its punk heyday.

Ragan's new album figures to be even sparser and more live than ever. It was written during spare moments with his touring trio (featuring fiddler Jon Gaunt and upright bassist Joe Ginsberg) on the bus, during soundcheck, in the green room before the show, or at the hotel room afterward. The basic tracks are recorded, additional tracks being laid down by keyboardist Rick Steff (Lucero, Cat Power), pedal steel player Todd Beene (Glossary), and singer Audra Mae.

"The goal was to do something even more stripped down than what I have been doing," says an excited Ragan.

"We wanted something very simplified, very organic — just let the songs get to a point where they stand up on their own with those three instruments, where we don't need drums or any of that stuff filling the gaps."

In the end, Ragan says he owes it all to his grandfather, who encouraged his musical inclinations when his parents didn't.

"He squeezed my neck and shoulder in that grandfatherly way and said, 'Boy, do you love playing that thing?' I said 'yeah' and he said, 'Well if you do, you're a fool if you ever put it down. And don't let anybody tell you different.'"

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