1. Chicago should be too flattered for goodbyes
Cody Canada breaks the news to me in May, just before an acoustic show at Joe's Sports Bar on Weed Street:
"Hey. Before the rumors get started, we're going on hiatus."
Cross Canadian Ragweed has been at the top of the branch of Americana music with an epicenter in Austin for most of the past half-decade. Canada is the front man and primary songwriter. This is his way of telling me it's time to move on.
The 15 reasons are for each year the band has been together. Founded in 1995 when former Yukon (Okla.) childhood friends Canada, Randy Ragsdale Grady Cross and Jeremy Plato decided to give a band a shot, Ragweed hasn't been separated much since. Or, as has Canada points out often, "We've been together longer than the Beatles."
The band played more than 250 shows a year throughout this decade until 2010. Ragweed holds the attendance record at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas -- a record formerly held by Willie Nelson. There have been 10 albums, six of which were released on Universal South Records. Earlier this summer, the band stared at its final tour-date obligation: Saturday at the Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque, Iowa, and Canada said, "Let's add one more."
So Cross Canadian Ragweed will play its final show as a band on Sunday night at Joe's.
The show sold out instantly.
2. I've been given all access, and therefore cannot be objective
Canada lives in New Braunfels, Texas, now, as does Plato.
But Ragweed's roots are in the college hamlet of Stillwater, Oklahoma, where for three decades songwriters converged so consistently as to develop a distinct scene. Rock meets old country meets folk meets gospel. Austin roots rocker Jimmy LaFave came from the area, and in an ode to the iron-laden soil that covers Stillwater, coined the phrase Red Dirt Music, and the name stuck.
Though the genre is songwriter-focused, Stillwater's place as the home of Oklahoma State University gives musicians instant audiences. Among others, the town was a proving ground for artists ranging from the Flaming Lips and All-American Rejects to Garth Brooks, all of whom used to have steady gigs on the two-lane street south of campus that the town calls "The Strip."
I graduated from Oklahoma State in 2001, working from 1999-01 for the campus paper, The O'Collegian. While there, I covered Ragweed and the entire Red Dirt scene with the tenacity of a wanna-be Rolling Stone writer. Predictably, that led to more friendships than professional associations or journalistic sources.
And for the last decade, Ragweed has treated me too much like family to ever consider writing another story. What you are reading are my reflections, an attempt via stories to convey to my new home why this show Sunday matters.
3. It pigeonholes Joe's Sports Bar, which is technically ironic
As bars go, Joe's gets around, in a way that leaves you the option of taking it or leaving it at any time. There's a lot of mainstream country crossing its stage, with credibility lent from the Academy of Country Music, which named it Nightclub of the Year in 2009. Crowds also flock for the usual bar gimmicks like dollar beers, UFC viewings and themed parties.
But aside from also being a massive sports bar with all the stops pulled out (viewing rooms, booth TVs, a polka band for Steelers games, etc.), Joe's is the city's Texas Music outlet. Co-owner Ed Warm, a rabid Indiana Hoosier fan with weaknesses for dogs and barbecue and an open mind for music, says Chicago artists had no interest in playing there.
"We booked Dierks Bentley in 2004, and he told us we had to book his friends Cross Canadian Ragweed," Warm said. "Ragweed is the band that other bands in Texas look up to, and after they played here, it opened up the pipeline."
The bar holds up its end of the equation, giving off a vibe that would fit in, if not in Austin, certainly in Dallas. Shiner Bock is on tap. Ragweed and Keen are jukebox options. Warm and his cohorts do enough to keep Joe's from being labeled a country bar or a sports bar, favoring instead a wide-open approach that has led to consistent booking of the alt-country or roots rock acts associated with Texas' capital.
"It works because the music is so damn good," Warm said. "We've bringing the acts from Austin up here, and the fans of that scene are loyal. When someone thanks me for booking a certain band, I tell them two things. First, it's my pleasure because I'm passionate about that music, and second, bring some people along to the next concert so we can keep building it."
4. It would be disrespectful to Cody
The front man is a study in contradictions. He is a bold songwriter whose biting, often personal lyrics can reveal confidence as easily as insecurity. He has taken on the responsibility of fronting an entire music scene, yet hates seeing his name in lights. ("I'm a band guy," he said. "I don't need to put myself in front of anyone.")
Cody Canada's voice is gravelly, almost stereotypical of Americana. Steve Earle or John Prine with range and a west-Texas drawl, which makes sense since he was born in Pampa, Texas. He's a hard-core Stone Temple Pilots and Frank Sinatra fan, which perhaps best explains why Ragweed may cover STP and John Hiatt in the same show.
He met his wife, Shannon, in Stillwater when she was booking musicians at the old Wormy Dog Saloon on that aforementioned strip south of campus. They were married in 1998 and she has managed the band since. For a decade, the two were inseparable, though parenthood has changed that. They have two sons, Dierks Cobain Canada, 5, and Willy Vedder Canada, 2. This keeps Shannon off the road now, but has fostered a tight family.
"I'm personally and professionally as happy as I can remember," Cody said this week while watching his kids play with their Halloween costumes. "Whatever happens next, I'm happy where I am."
5. It would be disrespectful to Randy
Ragsdale is the son of a guitar player, the drummer and the man who gave the band its first place to practice -- his family's home in Yukon. Canada has consistently called Randy "the backbone behind the band" because of the mentoring from Randy's father (Johnny C. Ragsdale).
It's July 2006 and Ragweed is playing at a sweltering, sold-out Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa (a ballroom where Elvis once played and Bob Wills called home), Oklahoma, recording its last of three live albums. In a between-song break, Ragsdale walks out from behind his drum kit. He lost his father nine years prior to cancer, and through confidence and charisma, his voice cracks:
"I wrote this song for my dad. He'd be so happy to be here right now, but he's looking down and he's seeing how cool this is."
The song's title? Daddy's At Home.
Ragsdale's bringing that song title full-circle now. The need to be a father himself to his 10-year-old son, J.C. Ragsdale, pressed Randy to first give up drinking (just about a year ago) and then the road altogether. J.C. is a special-needs child, and Randy's decision to be a full-time father officially brought Ragweed to Sunday's curtain call.
6. It would be disrespectful to Jeremy
The next move for Canada is a project with bluesy Texas songwriter Seth James and drummer David Bowen. They were in the studio last week working on a tribute album to Oklahoma songwriters (Kevin Welch, Tom Skinner, Bob Childers, among others).
They were joined by Jeremy Plato on bass guitar -- his gig with Ragweed for the last decade and a half. Plato and Canada are family now: brothers-in-law since Spring.
"After we had the conference call that we were taking a break, I went to Jeremy's house," Canada said. "I said, 'Man what do you want to do?"
"Jeremy said, 'I know you're going to carry on and I'm going wherever you go.'"
7. It would be disrespectful to Grady
Cross -- rhythm guitar player -- these days spends the hours just before and just after the shows on his cell phone, catching up with his wife, Robin, and his son and daughter. Grady represents the shift in responsibilities from the days when the band played dive bars and the members were all in their early 20s.
"When we loaded in at the Wormy Dog, we went to the bar. We stayed there for eight hours until we played at 10 at night," Cross said. "Back then we'd feel bad if someone bought us a drink and we didn't take it.
"But it comes with the bigger crowds that you have to start giving them their money's worth. This isn't a big frat party anymore. Our job is to put on a good show, and our wives and kids depend on that."
8. It would render those behind the band to footnote status
Show up at Joe's on Sunday, and you can walk out with a USB wristband of a live recording from the show. Recorded, mixed and mastered instantly by Brian Kinzie. Make a gesture toward Ragweed, and road manager Bert DeBruin will appear out of nowhere, between you and the band. Joel Schoepf has the undesirable job of constantly tuning and gauging all guitars throughout the shows.
Stillwater transplants all, including a pair who have been with the band from its earliest days. Merchandise manager Nathan Coit and house sound engineer Chris McCoy have traveled with the band since before either of their positions were needed. Write a goodbye piece and you lament the void the music will leave. But a trait of Red Dirt Music is family, and Ragweed's road crew personifies it.
9. It would leave the impression a record label burned Ragweed out
Ragweed signed with Universal South in 2002, bolstered by ambitious Nashville executives Tony Brown and Tim DuBois who promised the band an outlet for audiences and that they wouldn't be asked to change their music or style.
The band split with the label earlier this year when Universal South was lost in a merger, with one album remaining on its contract. At the time, Canada joked during shows that the working album title was "Contractual Obligations" which illustrates how the band leaves its label experience.
For the most part, at least as the band saw things, the label saw no upside in promoting Ragweed but kept the band under its contract until the breakup was announced.
"We feel burned, but it makes us want to work harder. It makes me want to work harder," Cross told me in March. "I want to get after it and show people they gave up on something really good."
10. January 27, 2001
It's 9 p.m. on a frigid Oklahoma Saturday night, and news is spreading across Stillwater that makes it even colder. A plane carrying 10 members of the OSU basketball program has crashed on a return flight from Boulder, Colorado, where they played that day.
The Wormy Dog Saloon is packed, as it always was when Ragweed played there at that time. Suddenly, the band is playing its hometown on the town's darkest day.
Nothing before or since has crushed that town to its core the way this incident did. I was the sports editor of the campus paper at the time. Because of the Ragweed concert, I had passed on an opportunity to join the team for this game (presumably to have returned on the ill-fated plane). And, because college papers did not publish on Sundays, I had 24 hours to gather my thoughts before we had to put out a paper.
"Stunned silence" cheapens the feeling drifting through the bar. If heartbreak makes a noise, that's what the Wormy Dog sounds like. Televisions are flashing photos of those first listed as missing and later dead.
Canada's usually-assertive voice cracks over the sobs and televisions. He's on the microphone. "Hey. I don't know what to do, but this is Stillwater, and Stillwater is hurting. The only thing we can do is play, cool?"
The place erupts. Ragweed powers through a two-hour show and immediately focuses on organizing a benefit concert 10 days later. By the time that concert rolled around, Canada had written "On a Cloud" as a tribute to the 10 people who died in the crash.
The song made Ragweed's label debut album as the tenth track.
11. "You can't run it through a checkout stand"
It's October 2000. The scene is the back patio of Lucy's Retired Surfer's Bar in Austin. I am 22 and the band's ages are all mid-20s. For my first-ever interview, I'm doing it as a roundtable, with a voice recorder in the middle and anybody can answer.
Oklahoma State is playing Texas in football on this day, and a caravan has made the trip from Stillwater. In a few hours, Ragweed will play a sold-out (capacity roughly 175) show with two other Stillwater-based artists, Stoney Larue and Jason Boland. But right now, I'm asking what makes it all worthwhile. Jeremy Plato calls the floor:
"Man, we'll kick off a song now and the whole bar will start singing it to us. We don't have to sing a word. To hear that now after working like we have for seven years, you can't put a value on that. You can't run it through a checkout stand, that's for sure."
Write a farewell story and it becomes about music and lyrics, which are forever. I find the reasons they made music for 15 years together more interesting, and that single line -- delivered in all sincerity by the reserved Plato -- says more than rhyming couplets and chord arrangements.
12. Their suffering would have been in vain
At its beginning, the band practiced in Randy Ragsdale's living room. The drummer's father, Johnny C. Ragsdale, was a musician any time he was not working Oklahoma farmland. He let the band practice any time, including in front of the television set on Super Bowl Sunday, so Canada's story goes.
He died of cancer in 1997, before the band released so much as a single.
Four years later, a few days after September 11, 2001, Randy's mother, RuthAnn, and younger sister Mandi (at the time, 9) were driving home from a Ragweed concert in College Station, Texas. They never finished the trip. All they know is that there was a two-car accident and Mandi was killed instantly.
The band has seen tragedy. Seen friends and family suffer, commit suicide, fall terminally ill and overdose. Of course they write about it and sing about it.
"All you can do is get stronger," Ragsdale said earlier this year. "We have each other and we're a family. We help each other get through these things and we get back out on the road. That's what we do."
Ragweed's charity work in Oklahoma and Texas is extensive. Mandi's Ministries was begun after the accident to raise seat belt awareness in children. The band helped create a special-needs baseball field in Yukon, Oklahoma, in 2009, as a gesture to Ragsdale's autistic son.
After the 2002 death of Waylon Jennings, the band organized a live recording (including among others, Jennings' widow Jessi Colter, and son, Shooter Jennings) with all the proceeds going to diabetes research.
So that scratches the surface enough to know a goodbye story would shortchange them.
13. There's no follow-up to Happiness and All the Other Things
Happiness and All the Other Things was the band's 2009 studio album. The songwriting is dark, treading a line between soul-searching depression and controlled rage. A very honest record, yes, but as the band's penultimate it gives the impression the band leaves depressed.
"I've come to grips with the what's happening to Ragweed," Canada said. "It was a good 15 years and we went through a lot together. But it's just time to do something new."
14. It puts Texas Music back in the hands of Texans
The fact Ragweed fronts the scene now cannot be understated for its uniqueness. Everything's bigger in Texas, including hatred of Oklahoma. Certainly, Ragweed as a band moving to Texas blunts this some, but the fact remains an Oklahoma four-piece is on a plateau once reserved for Texans only: Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, Joe Ely and Charlie Robison have all been at the top of this scene, and they are all Lone Star State natives.
Canada used to say, "It's just a river," in reference to the Red River, forming most of Texas' border with Oklahoma. "Red Dirt Music. Texas Music. Americana. When can we just call this stuff music and listen if it's good?"
But the Texans who follow Ragweed's footsteps will find doors kicked wide open for them by this particular Oklahoma four-piece.
15. It's reason 15 and the story still has not explained the choice of Chicago
Cody Canada is lamenting the Second City. Specifically, Joe's Sports Bar on Weed Street just west of Old Town, where on this night -- last December -- the band has played to nearly a thousand people at the end of a semiannual Midwest run.
Canada and some crew members have taken me up on an offer to drive them from Joe's to O'Hare at 4 a.m. The Kennedy Freeway lights and sounds give way to an assertion:
"This has turned into our favorite place to play," Canada said. "And man, if it weren't for the people, it's just a sports bar. We go all over but we always have a blast here, and there's one reason.
"The people here. This bar and this city treat us right."
Filed under: Uncategorized