Now/It's: An Interview with The Ragcoats

Nashville is a tough town to figure out. Some manners more so - best routes to circumvent traffic between sun up and sun down - than others - don't go downtown during CMA Fest. Granted, traffic is predicament that's left for Mayor Barry, not for a meandering blog writer. But with the thought of general difficulty, at least in terms of adversity, there are few subcultures of Nashville that provide a "trail by fire" approach than that of music, more specifically, rock n roll music. Some people turn and run at the first sign of obstacle, while others work indomitably, rolling with every proverbial punch, accruing scar tissue as wisdom. The Ragcoats - Curtis Ford, Allen Ralph, Shawn Simon, and (when in town) Nick Byrd - would fall into the latter category. Despite the relative sheen to the band - they've been together for a little over a year - these guys are as grizzled and gritty a rock n roll group as you'll find. They've developed ubiquitous dynamism in show and spirit that will undoubtedly pay off tenfold in the long run. Things are only starting in The Ragcoats path, but there's no questioning their willingness to whether the road. 

Now/It's met up with The Ragcoats at Portland Brew in the 12 South Neighborhood of Nashville.

N/I – So what have you guys been up to?

Allen Ralph – We’ve just been practicing, man

Shawn Simon – Playing some music.

Curtis Ford – I live right up the street, so we came right on down.

N/I – Yeah. That’s what Nick [Byrd] was saying. There was some sort of weird traffic situation?

Shawn – Yeah. Just because school is in session.

N/I – I live on Belmont Boulevard, so I run into that same sort of perpetual Belmont student overflow around this part of town.

Allen Ralph – It’s nice in the summer.

[Collective laughter]

N/I – It’s incredible in the summer. You can go anywhere with no trouble, but come 7am to 7pm during the school year, it’s pretty rough.

Curtis – Freshly implanted drivers in the city come zooming up the hill.

Nick Byrd – Darting around all over the place.

N/I – So what’s a typical practice session like for The Ragcoats? Is it hardcore?

Curtis – Typically, Allen and Shawn…. We practice at my house, rehearse and what not, because they live out in Adams, Tennessee.

Shawn – So we drive in and usually get here around ten o’clock.

Curtis – We’ll talk for a minute….

Shawn – Do a hang. Play some music. Grab some lunch. Play some more music. Like today, since we don’t have a show…

Allen – We don’t have a show for a couple weeks. So we’re not going to run through an entire setlist as much as work on new songs.

Shawn – We were just kind of jamming today.

Allen – But if we had a show in a couple days, we’d be running through a setlist.

N/I – Just making sure everything is a little more consistent. That makes sense. So what are these news songs, then? Are they brand new?

Curtis – One in particular is brand new. Typically, there are some grooves here and there…

Shawn – We’ll work on different grooves for months at a time.

Curtis – Then melodies kind of come later, at least it’s been that way recently. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

Allen – Usually, we’re just playing instrumental versions of the songs in a sound check sort of way. We’ll just be voicing them out. It’s funny, a couple of times when we’re playing live, Curt will just start talking during the songs, and he’ll come out with words.

Shawn – And in the moment we’ll get the melody for a song.

 Curtis Ford

Curtis Ford

Allen – In the moment, we’re just a little more in tune, it seems.

N/I – So it can be a stream of consciousness melody.

Curtis – As a starting point. If I’m moved enough to say it out loud, it’s at least worth exploring a little bit more.

Allen – We’ve had this song called “C Minor Jam,” that’s all it’s called.

Shawn – That’s how we write it in the setlist.

Allen – And in Birmingham, we were playing it, felt like it was going pretty well, and it was pretty well received from the start, but when we were closing it, Curtis just started saying a couple times in the closing “I want to lay you down.” And it kind of clicked. Shawn and I were just grinning the whole time.

Shawn – When he first did it, I actually had my eyes closed, so I looked up thinking, “Is somebody else speaking in the microphone?”

[Collective Laughing]

Allen – It did sound like someone else for a second.

Curtis – Well, I had heard that phrase in my head a bunch of times before when we were playing it. If anything, it was just going to be a weird tag, because there’s no singing other than that.

Allen – It’s mostly an instrumental.

Curtis – I thought it was a nice tag for the song, whether we would actually use it, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to do it a few times, but never did, and then finally I was like “Eh, I can do it now. I’ll just try it.”

N/I – And then from there, it was back to the drawing board? Or at least there was a little bit more consideration for it.

Curtis – Right.

N/I – So how long have The Ragcoats been around?

Allen – Just over a year.

Curtis – Yep. Just over a year.

N/I – How did you guys come to be?

Shawn – [Talking about Allen] We’ve known each other since we were little kids.

Allen – Shawn and I went to school together.

N/I – Where was that?

Allen – In Adams. Jo Byrns High School. It’s a very small school.

Shawn – It’s K-12.

Allen – Says sometimes it feels like we’re from a different generation, because we’re from Adams. We’re like his elders.

Curtis – They’re my older brothers. [Laughs]

Allen – We still had dialup Internet.

Shawn – In that sense, it was a little bit of a generation gap. iPods came around five years later, where we’re from. Stuff like that.

N/I – I understand that. You go out to certain parts of Tennessee, or anywhere in the South, really, and it can seem like you’re traveling back a solid ten years.

Shawn – Or twenty, even.

N/I – Truly.

[Collective laughter]

Allen – We rode in the back of a pickup truck everywhere.

Shawn – Safety is optional out there.

N/I – There are kids jumping around on rusty old trampolines and things like that.

Shawn – That’s just how it is.

N/I – [To Curtis] So what about you?

Curtis – I’m from Alabama. Mobile, Alabama. I’ve been here in Nashville for five years, but all of us met through videography work, thanks to our friend Mike Ruther…

Allen – OurVinyl.

Shawn – We really got jibing when we did Bobfest.

 Shawn Simon

Shawn Simon

Curtis – Right. Then I met Shawn when they put on a music festival at his dad’s – Bob – house. So they called it Bobfest. We had some friends in another band called Treadwell Ford, and we played that night.

Shawn – That’s when we really started hanging out more. Nick actually got involved with us because he ran sound on that weekend.

Curtis – Right. So we played that Friday night, and then Nick ran sound that whole weekend, I think.

Nick – I think so.

Curtis – I almost want to say he was by himself.

Shawn – We had one other guy running sound.

N/I – Yeah, don’t give Nick all the credit.

[Collective laughter]

Nick – There was one other guy. It was a good time.

Curtis – He was an animal that weekend, though. He was a champ. It was a lot of fun. And then these guys kind of moved away from Nashville.

Allen – Right when we did the music festival…

Shawn – We moved back to Adams.

Allen – Rent was getting really expensive around here, and to be trying to do the music thing… Shawn and I came about music a little bit later than most. We didn’t get serious about our instruments until probably five or six years ago.

Shawn – We were kind of career guys out of college that just “had” guitars.

Allen – He did real estate and I was a photographer, so we did our own thing and got into all this a little bit later, so we decided we needed to go and get good.

Shawn – So we did a big push, spending eight or nine months out there, doing our own thing….

Allen – We lived in a camper.

Shawn – Woodshedding, drinking beer; all the good stuff. Then we had a couple songs that we had been working on, so we approached Curt, because we knew him and liked him, and we’re like “What do you think about writing a song together?” And then we played music together once, and we just had a really good groove together, so it just sort of [snaps].

Curtis – The groove was good, so it was fun for me to just slide into the writing part, because I really enjoy writing and singing as much as I do playing guitar and drums, so it was a really nice palette to start from. There were plenty of simple aspects that provided a lot of soul from the start…

Shawn – To start jamming.

N/I – So what does that look like in terms of production.

Allen – We’ve got something like twenty-five songs on the board, right now.

Shawn – Yeah. We did a good writing push this winter.

Allen – We’ve got songs bursting out of the seams right now.

N/I – I was about to say – twenty-five songs is fairly prolific, especially for a band that’s only been fully formed for a little over a year.

Allen – It helps too that we all do some form of writing. I’ll come with a thing and Curt will add to it. We have a little country song that we’re going to go and work on… I call it “country,” but it’s more of a mountain bluegrass song. But we’re going to try and record it, demo it in a few weeks at the studio and Shawn wrote that one.

Curtis – It feels really communal – the music – when we write it, because there are different variations to songs. We switch up a lot of stuff…

Shawn – I don’t know if you knew this, but we do a swap on guitar and drums.

N/I – Nice.

Allen – Yeah. A lot of times, I’ll start out the set on guitar and then I’ll switch to drums and Curt will take guitar. It keeps things active.

Curtis – When I’m on drums, I feel like things are a little bit more standard, but when he’s on drums and I’m on guitar, we can do a little more psych rock n roll. We can push it a little bit more. It mixes things up.

Shawn – Makes it dynamic.

N/I – Sure. It keeps a prevailing dynamic, but inside the set there are separate dynamics within it that keep things super stimulating.

Curtis – But keeping it interesting and keeping things moving when we do that is fun, because it creates this sort of mini challenge. How do we kill potential dead air in between songs?

N/I – And how do you guys resolve that?

Shawn – They make me do bass noodles the whole time. I’m like “Okay. Cool.”

Curtis – Bass noodles definitely help.

Shawn – I like it when Nicky’s there with us, because we can do some little synth and bass stuff.

N/I – Just making sure everything stays in pocket.

Curtis - But we throw that bluegrass song in between the sets to make it a hard stop.

Allen - It’s basically an interlude.

N/I - Whether people at the show realize it or not, it’s a pivot in the set.

Allen - Exactly.

Curtis - Keep people guessing.

Allen - And we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve been talking about having enough songs and making shorter sets, so that if we’re playing in town or some sort of back-to-back, it would be fun to only give them one thing.

Curtis - Like for one show, I only play drums. And the next time we swap it up.

Allen - So in a sense, it turns into two different shows.

N/I - Then once you’ve developed that reputation, it’s something associate with The Ragcoats as a whole. If you guys have a new album out, not only would someone have to see you at the release, but also at the next local show, because you know there might be a chance of it being totally different. But all the while maintaining the overall Ragcoats “feel.”

Allen - Yes. Absolutely.

N/I - So have you all always been into hyper-dynamic jam music?

Shawn - We’ve always been multi-instrumentalists since day one, really. Keys, drums, guitar - we all can cover whichever one.

Allen - Curt was more guitar at first….

Shawn - But he’s started to take on drums more, lately.

Curtis - I’ve really started to fall in love with playing the drums, because it re-opens every song I’ve ever listened to. I’ve always been a huge Levon Helm fan, The Band is probably one of my favorite bands ever. Levon’s is arguably the best rock n roll singer of all time.

N/I - He’s definitely in the conversation.

Shawn - He’s great.

Curtis - Now, I don’t know where he lands, but he’s always been a real big influence. So when the opportunity arose...

Shawn - He jumped right on it.

Curtis - It seemed like something cool to do.

Shawn - And it’s such a “pat your head, rub your stomach” sort of thing, I don’t know how he’s singing and drumming at the same time.

[Collective laughter]

N/I - Well it’s kind of funny - you look at The Band, and it’s just ridiculous how well Levon could maintain his dexterity and stay in the pocket the whole time, but all the while, he’s doing vocal runs that any normal singer would gladly try and emulate.

Allen - I don’t know, man. It’s wild.

Curtis - He definitely raises the bar. For him to go out…. He went out like a rockstar, too - playing a midnight show to pay off his cancer bills from all his life of hard living. So he’s definitely a big influence, for sure.

Allen - Definitely soul and sixties music, too.

Shawn - Oh yeah. We’re sixties influenced. Can’t get off of it.

Allen - Like British stuff. I was just talking to them in the car, Donovan was huge. We’re doing a cover of “Season of the Witch” right now - we tried that in Birmingham, and I feel like it went over pretty well.

Shawn - Yeah, I’d say it went over well on the road.

 Allen Ralph

Allen Ralph

N/I - Were people familiar with the fact that it was a Donovan song?

Shawn - The older crowd was.

Allen - We figured there were maybe two or three out of every ten folks that were there, and it’s worth it for that alone.

N/I - Absolutley.

Allen - And the song’s groovy enough too, that it’s almost like the other people might have just thought it was our song. It fits within the sound we’re going with anyway.

N/I - Well, if worst case scenario they think it’s your song, but you’re not claiming it as your own song, it’s not the worst thing to happen, especially with someone like Donovan. The reason I ask is because I brought up Donovan in another interview, and they hadn’t heard of him, but he was really into The Beatles, and then he learned about Donovan’s influence on The Beatles, and then a week later, after they’d check it out, they were like “Oh my god, dude. Donovan!”

Shawn - So that’s kind of what happened with us. We started covering the song, and by doing so, we started listening to Donovan a little bit more, and started to fall in love with it. We’re so familiar with the songs that we didn’t even know.

Allen - We were talking to our engineer…

Shawn - Jeff.

Allen - Last week. Jeff was super stoked after I sent him a video of us playing the song in Birmingham and he was like “Man, I love this. I love Donovan.” He was telling me that Jimmy Page played on “Season of the Witch,” and I didn’t know that, and then he told that was Zeppelin’s favorite song to sound check with, and jam to, just because it lent itself to jamming.

Shawn - So then after the fact, we’re realizing that there’s a lot to live up to on that song.

Curtis - I love that song.

N/I - I can’t even begin to imagine Bonham putting his flair on it.

Curtis - I would have killed to see them do it. Just to see them live, on time.

Allen - That would have been incredible.

N/I - So, my introduction to The Ragcoats was through Nick [Byrd], which would have been two months ago now, but ever since then, you guys have been playing on all sorts of bills, and I’m seeing your name pop up more and more around town…

Curtis - We definitely just got off a solid run of shows.

Allen - A big push.

N/I - So was that on purpose? To wait until you guys got super tight? Or were you waiting to ingratiate yourselves into the soul rock scene that you guys fit so well in?

Curtis - Well we definitely aren’t in a position to turn down any shows, but….

Shawn - We’re kind of hungry for them.

Curtis - But when we were getting ready to release a single, the shows were kind of like a stepping stone. It was, “Let’s have this ready by this show. Let’s have the next thing ready before the next show,” but we recently went to Alabama, which went great.

Shawn - That was a big step for us, because we played music three days in a row, and it felt really good. It made us feel tighter as a band.

N/I - It’s probably to get into that headspace, full on.

Allen - It was amazing. Shawn and I… I think our first show was back in late May.

Shawn - Our first show, ever.

Allen - The first show we’ve ever played as legit musicians, much less as The Ragcoats

Shawn - We were scared of that [laughs].

Allen - But after that, we want to take on every show we can, because we feel like we need to earn our stripes, too. Because we’re in a town where people like Nick have been playing since they were fourteen years old, and we’re still really fresh at this, so we need all the work we can.

N/I - Well I can see two ends of the spectrum with regard to that particular scenario - you have someone like Nick, who's put in their “10,000 hours” so to speak, but at the same time, there are other people that show up in town and after six months, they manage to move the barometer despite not being quite as seasoned. And I don’t know if it’s their earnestness of wanting to perform, or being willing to put themselves out there type of thing….

Allen - Like a Jon Latham kind of thing.

N/I - Exactly. Jon Latham’s a good example.

Shawn - Tyler Childers.

N/I - Another one. You have all these guys - and it’s interesting that a lot of these types of folks are singer-songwriters, granted Tyler is a little more mountain folk - but at the same time, it’s an interesting dynamic to be in a town with both of these scenarios. Granted, that’s not to take anything away from the season pros, it’s just different approaches.

Curtis - And also, it just depends upon who helps you. I mean, any help at all is good, but there are certain people in this town that can help you jump over all sorts of obstacles that you may have had to cross otherwise. But that leads you to…. I’d never really understood the importance of networking until recently. Just to understand what your network is can be one of your biggest assets. It’s a great place for that.

N/I - I’ll speak from my own experience - and I’m sure Nick can attest to this - I have little patience for strictly networking type events.

Allen - I know. I know.

DSC06454.jpg

Shawn - The worst.

N/I - And there are tons of those going on any given night, so those suck. But in terms of the “spirit” of networking, Nashville is really good for that. If you show up to someone’s shows, continually making sure you’re seen until someone recognizes you as that random dude that’s at all of their shows, and then they might be like “Hey man, you’ve been to the last twelve shows…” and then they at least get to put a name to a face.

Allen - And then you run into them at Edley’s.

Curtis - It’s almost like a dirty word, though. Networking is like a systematic way of going out….

N/I - Well in a way, it’s calculating, no matter how casual you try and keep it.

Shawn - It is definitely calculated.

N/I - It’s built on a sort of calculated benefit for anyone and everyone there, but it still needs to be done.

Shawn - It’s essential.

N/I - And some people are better at approaching it from a normal standpoint, as opposed to a forced manner. I’m sure you guys have already run into all sorts of people that are like “Hey, you guys are awesome. When’s your next show? I have a band.” and then that just kind turns into an “Okay dude.” type of scenario.

Curtis - But it always kind of feels forced, no matter how well it goes. When someone asks you about your own band, you almost find yourself….

Shawn - Pitching.

[Collective laughing]

N/I - You probably catch yourselves. It’s hard not to sound like you’re reading off a release sometimes.

Shawn - For sure.

Curtis - But in a way, bands are more or less a small business. We’re all entrepreneurs ourselves….

Shawn - You got to talk about it, and try to get them to buy a t-shirt.

[Collective laughing]

N/I - You’re trying to sell people on something immediate - a t-shirt - as well as selling them on the long term, which is...

Allen - Our music career and the songs we put out.

N/I - You want to get that devoted fan where they’re streaming every release, buying it, going to every show from now until perpetuity. It’s interesting to hear you guys talk about approaching it as a small business. Because I’ve always kind of thought that seems to be the most effective way to look at a band, but not in the sense of becoming multi-million dollars or bust, but more along the lines of treating it as such to create structure.

Allen - It’s cool, because we break the band up in a very specific way - Shawn kind of handles the money, Curt books gigs, and I do all of our artwork, pictures, and that kind of stuff - I’ll send Curt something and he’ll think it’s cool, and we’ll push him to email someone to get a show.

Curtis - It feels like you’re trying to get a helicopter running.

Allen - And Shawn making sure we have the money to keep making music. Shawn's the biggest one, so we make him keep the money because he’d be the hardest one to take down.

[Collective Laughing]

N/I - That makes sense, at least from a physicality standpoint. So did those roles naturally fall into place.

Curtis - Yeah, kind of.

Allen - Curt had a few connections from his last band, so that landed us our first Basement East gig, stuff like that.

Curtis - We just know people from playing, but also, I don’t mind writing emails and reaching out to people. The next thing we’re going to do is try and get the single on the radio, and the reaching out and networking is all part of it.

N/I - Right. I would imagine that it’s kind of weird to try and push everything at the same time with an equal amount of energy behind it.

Allen - Yeah. It’s trippy how much you have to work it. With me and Shawn living out in Adams, it’s really more like two days a week that we’re able to get up and do band related things, but now it’s starting to become more of a three or four day a week job.

N/I - But you guys still feel like it’s pretty manageable?

All - For sure.

N/I - Would you guys prefer to keep things the way they’re set up, then?

Shawn - If I had it my way, we’d all live in one big house and play music together all day long.

Allen - And if we had management or booking people to help take care of most of that stuff, we’d be happy to source that to someone else.

Curtis - It is nice having the rehearsal space at my house - there’s a spare room that we can rehearse - but being out in Adams, it’s really nice. There’s not a ton going on, it’s quiet.

Shawn - I got a big place out there, so we can make a lot of noise.

Curtis - And play as late as we want. It’s a really great place to create, so to have that as an option would be nice, but they’ve been talking about keeping it either way.

Shawn - Yeah. Keeping it is the plan.

Curtis - But being here in town, I know it’s a long drive back to Adams, and they’ve got pups in the house, so it can make things difficult.

Allen - It gets tough sometimes.

N/I - But it seems like it’s still working to some degree.

Allen - It’s definitely working.

Shawn - For the size we are now - we’re not playing three shows a week - it’s more like four or five shows a month, so it’s very manageable at this point.

N/I - And all the while, you guys aren’t over-saturating yourselves within Nashville playing shows.

Curtis - We all have other gigs to make some money.

Shawn - Got to put meat on the table.

Allen - We’ve had buddies that have played out so many shows, but you can’t play too much in town. So we’re working on trickling out of town, to keep getting in front of people, but not the same people.

Shawn - That was a good experience, going to Alabama, seeing the differences in crowds between there and Nashville was great.

N/I - Were they distinctly different crowds? Were they people you guys knew?

Curtis - Where I’m from, they were. I hadn’t played there for a while, and I used to play in some local cover bands when I was in college, but I never played originals there. So that was definitely a coming home thing. But Birmingham was a pretty organic crowd.

Shawn - We didn’t know anyone in the crowd, just played with some local bands and had a pretty good turnout.

Curtis - The music scene there is cool. I was really impressed.

N/I - It seems like Birmingham is on the up and up. Where’d you guys play?

Allen - The Syndicate Lounge.

Shawn - It’s kind of like The High Watt.

Curtis - It’s one guy that runs the place, runs the sound, and just really gives a shit.

Allen - And the crowd was really responsive. It’s nice when people genuinely seem to give a shit about what you’re doing.

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