A couple of quick thoughts come to mind when sitting before the four members of Cross Canadian Ragweed backstage at Billy Bob’s Texas.
1. Randy Ragsdale, Cody Canada, Grady Cross and Jeremy Plato sure aren’t your usual interview subjects in today’s scrubbed-clean, made-up and media-trained world of mainstream country music. They smoke, they cuss and they interact like old buds who laugh at each other’s jokes and finish one another’s sentences. Politically correct they are not.
2. But the pot-smoking, beer-chugging college days are history. These guys are serious now, writing songs with lyrical heft and Southern rock energy. Plus, they are all husbands and fathers, which only heightens their need for creative expression.
“Mission California,” the band’s fresh studio album, showcases the quartet’s sharpest musicianship and Canada’s most personal songwriting. He’s angry at the bean-counting, artistry-thwarting man during “Record Exec.” He’s rattling with angst on “Dead Man,” then turns gentle and reflective on the ballad “Lawrence.” Later, he channels the Beatles on “NYCG,” while Plato takes an R&B detour on the smoky, melodic “Soul Agent.”
The CD is a revelation. Surely this isn’t the same group that cranked out frat-boy anthems “Carney Man” and “Boys From Oklahoma” back in the late `90s. But for those who follow CCR religiously, and there are plenty of you out there judging by the outfit’s busy touring schedule of 260 shows a year, “Mission California” comes as no surprise. With the release of 2002’s “Cross Canadian Ragweed,” dubbed The Purple Album for its album cover hue, Canada and company matured into real artists.
That album’s centerpiece is “17,” a searing account of youthful rebellion and adult resilience. The song’s message is succinct: There’s no reliving the past.
That turned out to be prophetic. While Ragweed hasn’t lost any touring business and “Mission California” sold a respectable (for them, anyway) 22,604 copies its first week in stores, there are some fans who can’t get past the “Carney Man” and “Boys From Oklahoma” days.
“There’s a lot of people that say, `You know, you don’t play anything even close to the old stuff. I like the old stuff the best.’ And that’s cool. That’s really cool,” says Canada, 31, as he puffs on a cigarette. “But I know what they’re referring to. They’re referring to `Carney Man.’ And we still like it. But there’s so much more to talk about. I don’t know if it’s getting older and having kids. What’s the point writing about some things when there’s so much more to talk about around you? I think it bugs some people, and I think other people like it. Because it is progressing, whatever it’s turning into. In the beginning, a lot of people said we were a country band. And then people said we were turning into a rock band. They didn’t know what to do with us. We’re not trying to do anything. It’s just happening.”
The guys are all comfortable with being called Southern rockers. Of course, that means mainstream country radio has yet to embrace their gritty sound.
“Sometimes I feel like this band should have been around in the `70s,” says Cross, 32. “Then it would have had more of a shot at radio. But now, if we get it, fine. But if we had been around in the `70s we would have it.”
Nobody’s losing sleep over this.
“There’s no possible way we could be busier than we are,” says Canada.
And yet for a band that loudly trumpets its independence, eschews the industry schmoozing parties, won’t cater to radio and still makes its records with longtime Oklahoma buddy Mike McClure as co-producer, CCR remains signed to Nashville’s Universal South.
Sound like a contradiction?
“No, not a bit,” says Canada. “There’s a lot of people that couldn’t believe we signed with a Nashville label. But as long as they do what needs to be done without changing what we do ...”
They’re not scared of returning to the do-it-yourself way of releasing records, either. That’s how they got 1998’s “Carney” and 2001’s “Highway 377” out there.
“Oh yeah,” says Canada. “We would have to. Internet, word-of-mouth, downloads. If people want it, they’ll find it. If you want a CD or a song, you’re going to go through everything to get it.”
Especially the die-hard fans in Oklahoma and Texas. Cross Canadian Ragweed formed in 1994 in Yukon, Okla., where Cross and Ragsdale still live. Canada is now based in New Braunfels, Texas, while Plato lives in a Houston suburb. They are the foremost purveyors of the red-dirt sound, which encompasses Americana, folk, country and roots rock and originates in the Stillwater, Okla., area.
But again, the Ragweed boys don’t fit into any boxed genres. That’s by design. And as they watch friends Pat Green and Jack Ingram score national radio hits, they feel no jealousy or second thoughts.
“I don’t think there’s ever been one regret in this band,” says Canada. “There’s been nights that we regretted, but no decisions.”
To underscore his point, Canada tells a story that involves multimillion-selling country superstar Tim McGraw, perhaps the last person you’d think would hang out with Cross Canadian Ragweed.
“We were with Tim McGraw in LA two years ago,” he says. “Joe Nichols, he’s our label mate, just got a gold record. We’re sitting backstage or sitting in our bus or something and I told Tim, `Well, let’s get one of those. Let’s get a gold record.’ He said, `Well, you let me drive.’
“He was dead serious. He said, `You let me drive, you let me pick the songs and I’ll get you one.’ I said, `Dude, I was kidding. If we’re going to get a gold record, it’s going to be because of who we are.’”