Simply put, they don’t make musicians like Chuck Ragan anymore. For nearly two decades Ragan has traversed the country and the world—first with his celebrated punk act Hot Water Music and later as a solo troubadour—to bring his music to the masses. Correspondingly Ragan’s third solo album Covering Ground is as much of a love letter to his transient lifestyle as it as a concession to the loved ones he often has to leave behind and is also undeniably his most honest and accomplished album to date.
Featuring longtime collaborator/fiddle player Jon Gaunt and bassist Joe Ginsberg in addition to guest appearances from the Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, Blind Melon’s Chris Thorn, Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Chris Phillips, Frank Turner and Audra Mae, Covering Ground is the sonic equivalent to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and could only be created by someone who requires a release like this in order to stay sane. “The majority of these songs were written on the road,” Ragan explains. “We’ve been running hard and burning the candle at both ends for the past few years which has been amazing in many ways, but you end up making a massive amount of sacrifices to sustain that type of lifestyle.”
This duality lies at the core of Covering and when Ragan sings about “ten cylinders that fire and a woman at the end of the road” on the driving acoustic song “Wish On The Moon,” it’s dripping with so much authenticity that it’s hard not to imagine yourself behind the wheel alongside Ragan. “Writing has always been a form of therapy for me and something that I feel like I need to do rather than something I’m supposed to do,” Ragan responds when asked where the fire behind this songs originated. “Since I’ve started doing the solo thing in 2005 I’ve been consistently writing and I’m not worried about whether I finish a song, I just want to get this down to unburden my soul.”
Musically Covering Ground sees Ragan peeling back the layers of his songwriting style and allowing the talented cast of musicians to fill out the arrangements with their own voices. “I really wanted to do a record that was going to transfer seamlessly into the live setting since we all spend so much time on the road,” Ragan explains. “I wanted this album to have more of a stripped-down and organic approach than [2009’s] Gold Country.” Correspondingly Gaunt’s fiddle effortlessly weaves melody lines over Ragan’s workman like acoustic guitar playing while peers like Fallon and Turner’s guest vocals help add layers of depth to songs like “Nothing Left To Prove” and “Wish On The Moon.”
Despite the fact that Ragan is working with instrumentation that has existed for hundreds of years, Covering Ground is also a remarkably diverse-sounding album and showcases the range Ragan is now able to attain with his whiskey-soaked pipes. In fact from the impassioned hymns such as “Meet You In The Middle” to gospel-inflected numbers like “Right As Rain” and instantly recognizable tunes like “Nothing Left To Prove,” all of which prove how much Ragan’s arrangements have grown since his first two releases. “Making this music is our passion but at the same time it’s our livelihood,” Ragan says. “It’s easy to get jaded on the road; the struggle is trying to find that balance between work and passion.”
Speaking of the road, since Gold Country Ragan has toured with everyone from Social Distortion to the Gaslight Anthem in addition to his own headlining shows and his appearances on the Revival Tour, a traveling road show that he started in 2008. “The tours we’ve done over the past few years have been incredible because we’ve played for a wide range of folks who wouldn’t normally have any idea that we’re around and that’s a huge opportunity,” Ragan explains. “I feel like if people spend their time, money and energy to give us the time of day then we’re going to give them everything we’ve got every night.”
That spirit of giving it his all is what separates Ragan from other songwriters and is also what makes Covering Ground such a timeless album that follows in the tradition of folk pioneers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. “I used to build houses with a good friend of mine and even though I’m doing this now the parallels in our lives are still identical,” Ragan muses. “One thing he said with me that really stuck was that we have two choices in life: you either roll with the punches or lie down—and only one of those is a choice for people like us,” he summarizes. “Being a musician is a lot easier that some of the other jobs I’ve had, but I’ve still made the choice to work hard and keep going and that’s a rule I live by every single day.”
- Jonah Bayer