by Zach Fraley
The life of a musician hinges on remaining active and relevant, as doing so will keep a steady stream of fresh ears listening to your music. One strategy for doing this is to constantly release new, beautiful works for fans to consume. Chuck Ragan, whose sound teeters somewhere between folk, country, and Cajun, accomplishes just this, and has released both a live album and video game soundtrack in the short time 2016 has existed.
The live album, The Winter Haul Live, dropped on January 12th and features 13 renditions of songs from his recent studio albums, including 2014’s Till Midnight. The video game soundtrack, on the other hand, dropped just days ago and features music recorded for the early access Steam title The Flame in the Flood. Currently being sold for $19.99, the game allows players to venture through America’s river systems in an attempt to build, survive, and thrive in the wilderness.
Ragan notes that the recording process for the soundtrack differed from his more recent studio albums in that the music itself still sounded unembellished even as an end result.
“The Flame in the Flood is definitely different from Till Midnight. It was done in a much more raw fashion, and it’s a lot more stripped down. But that’s the whole point of it. I never want to write the same record twice, so to me it was cool to do it this way.”
Growing up in the Southeastern United States with parents who enjoyed singing Cajun tunes and whose mom touted evangelism, Ragan admits that his upbringing is part of what shaped the sound he plays today, whether he likes it or not.
“I’ve always played that type of music. I’ve played acoustic guitar since I was a kid, and grew up in a southern household, so we listened to a lot of Cajun music in the house. My papa was an accordion player, and some of my earliest memories with music was listening to my mama and papa sing and play French and Cajun songs. My brother and I would dance around the room to that. There was always a lot of gospel and spirit-driven music in our lives. Just growing up in the southeast allowed me to grow up with bluegrass, country, and folk. A lot of the music I play now was embedded in me at an early age. Whatever you grow up with, whether you attach with it or not, somehow will come out in a form of artistic expression.”
Even with the busy 2016 Ragan has enjoyed so far, he maintains that one of his most treasured albums is his 2014 studio LP Till Midnight – noting how the process of creating this album was as important to him as the final product.
“Till Midnight was definitely one of my favorites, and a lot of it has to do with the process of writing and putting it together. It was definitely the most connected in terms of camaraderie. I’d always done a lot of recording where I’d just lay it down and others would just add to it, but it’s nothing like being in the room with people working on the tunes together. We spent a lot of time not necessarily working on the songs, but just getting everybody connected. To me, that happens through spending time together. We spent just as much time by the fire or going fishing as we did writing songs. It was all about bonding, because I feel that if a group is connected on a personal level, then it only makes the songs better. I can hear it in the album because the session just flowed. Working with Christopher Thorn was amazing as well, since he’s a brilliant producer.”
To get inspired to write for his recent video game soundtrack, Ragan fished, camped, and trekked through the nature surrounding his Lake Tahoe home. Thanks to his proximity to all things Mother Earth, he was able to create the rustic sounds necessary for the game and inspire himself by experiencing scenes similar to those that can be found in the game.
“I spend a lot of time outdoors when I’m home. When The Molasses Flood approached me about doing this concept, to me it was completely clear. I just had to go pitch a tent by the side of the river, and that’s where a lot of those songs were honed, created, or finished. These are places that are very sacred to me. Now I’ll pass by a lot of my old campsites and it’s a great memory. It felt proper to really get connected this way.”
In addition to loving nature and to his decades-long career in songwriting, Ragan acts as a fly-fishing instructor. Not only does he take folks that stop by his local tackle shop, but he also works with a non-profit to take inner city kids and teens on what is often their first true experience in nature.
“I’m entering my second season as a fly-fishing instructor as well, and now I’ve decided to take it on as a profession. I absolutely love it. Guiding is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, especially guiding beginners and kids. But at the same time, it’s extremely rewarding. The trips vary because it’s never completely consistent. You’re dealing with the natural elements, so sometimes rivers will blow out and you have to cancel trips. There’s a lot of factors involved when you work in that kind of environment, but I’ll do anywhere from 8-15 guided trips a month.
“I’m an independent guide, but also guide out of our local tackle shop as well as a non-profit called Cast Hope. These were some of the people that put a fire under me to get my license. I was always out there anyway, and had a couple buddies that said I knew what I was doing, so why not come help this organization out. I joined it last year, and what we do is find and take a lot of inner-city kids or underprivileged children and introduce them to the outdoors. It’s not all about fishing at all. We cater a trip around each individual, so it’s all about reading each kid. Most of them have never been on a boat or seen a duck or a deer. To teach them a bit of entomology and the life of a river system is amazing, and the bonus is the fish. To get them away from city lights and getting them to breathe fresh air allows for a positive experience. I love it, and it’s a huge part of my life.”
Having created music since 1993, Ragan has plenty of experience and knowledge to pass onto those looking to thrive in the music industry. His biggest piece of advice is that one must sacrifice in order to get what they truly want out of their life, but staying relevant also plays a huge role in the success of a songwriter or artist.
“If [they are] a songwriter, I’d say to just keep writing. Constantly lay down stuff, even if you’re second-guessing it. To me, it’s more about staying active and honing that skill, almost like you do with a muscle. You either use it or lose it. If it’s someone that is a player in the industry, it’s the same thing. The way the industry has changed for most of us is that it’s really tough to make a living unless you’re out there pounding the pavement. When you’re 18-25, it’s all you wanna do and who you wanna be. But when things start to develop in your life where you start to have a family or settle down and you’re tired of sleeping on floors or in dingy hotel rooms, you kinda wonder what the carrot is you’re chasing. Some people are fine with that, and that’s cool. But be aware that it’s not easy. There’s a ton of people doing it, and it’s likely that they’re more talented than you are. I believe it’s just like anything else – if you want it bad enough, then go for it and don’t let anyone tell you different. Play with all your heart and play every show like it’s your last.”
Ragan will stop by Union Transfer on February 15 for a show, and barring any major malfunctions, declares that he hopes to explore what Philadelphia has to offer.
“Depends on what kind of time we have, but you never know what’s around the corner. When we’re on the road, a lot of the time it’s a day-to-day living situation. As long as we don’t have to do any last-minute repairs, I’d love to get out and around in Philly.”