Written by Bill Kopp | Photos by Evan Anderson
Gar Ragland wears multiple hats—recording studio rat and producer, owner of a record label and an annual songwriting competition, board chair of the Asheville Area Arts Council—yet he’s not feeling overextended in the least. “More often than not I feel like my professional journey is still in its infancy,” he says. “I’m just getting started.”
Asheville-based producer Gar Ragland is deeply immersed in multiple endeavors that skillfully combine commerce and creativity.
The ripple effects of his efforts are often far-reaching, providing tangible encouragement and assistance to rising musical talents. Some of his projects are high-profile, while others are understated, even under wraps. And though his career path has had its share of twists and turns, with the benefit of hindsight it looks remarkably linear; each step forward appears a logical progression.
Ragland was born and raised in Winston-Salem, where he quickly developed an interest in all things musical. “I fell in love with music—and the performance aspects of it—at an early age,” he recalls. He took guitar lessons and became more serious about playing music while in high school. “When I went to the University of Virginia in the early ‘90s,” he continues, “I started playing gigs for the first time.” He mostly played cover songs on acoustic guitar, performing at coffee houses and bars. “But I was getting paid!” Ragland pauses, then laughs. “I was drinking for free, though I wasn’t even 21 yet. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I could get used to this.”
Virginia is for Players
The music scene in Charlottesville was thriving at the time, and Ragland became part of it. “I was very active playing in different bands and solo projects,” he says. Hometown heroes the Dave Matthews Band was starting to come together, and most of the local musicians knew each other. As Ragland puts it, “I knew Dave when he was still a bartender downtown.”
By his senior year, Ragland was getting gigs both on and off campus, and out of town. “We were working with two agencies that were booking us for private parties and clubs from Auburn, Alabama, all the way up to Princeton, New Jersey,” he says. “We did a lot of fraternity parties, and the money was great for a college kid. We played a combination of covers and originals; it was party music.”
Things took a turn after Ragland graduated in 1993. He had studied pre-med as an undergraduate, eventually majoring in environmental science. He enjoyed the field research that was part of his studies. “I spent a lot of time in Shenandoah National Park, studying chemical hydrology and the effects of acid rain on the native trout population,” he says.
But by the time he was set to take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), he realized he didn’t want to continue in that direction. “I just did not have the focus, the discipline, and the passion for that anymore. I was all-consumed with music.” So, he decided not to go to medical school.
“In retrospect, it was a great decision,” he says, reflecting on what a career in medicine might have meant. “I think I would be a much less happy person than I am now. I’d probably have more financial security, but that’s the trade-off, right?”
Ragland remained in Charlottesville for the next four years. (“I decided that I wasn’t ready to enter the workforce.”) So, using the college town as his base of operations, he continued to play music and tour. “And that’s when I started to get interested in the production side of things,” he says, adding that his interest in physics led him to become intrigued with the scientific aspects of audio recording technology. “So, I would just pick up a piece of outboard [recording] gear here and there.”
Digital recording technology was in its infancy, but that’s the direction Ragland pursued as he learned his craft. “At the time, we used ADAT machines that took VHS tapes,” he says, with a chuckle. “Not a very sexy medium. But then the Hi-8 format came out, and I got a lightweight multitrack machine.”
Ragland notes that his interest in (and appreciation for) traditional tape-based analog recording technology wouldn’t come until much later, saying, “I’ve come sort of full circle, I guess. I recently bought a quarter-inch, two-track machine, and that’s what I print all of my mixes on now.”
Conservation to Conservatory
During that period, as he developed his audio engineering and production skills, Ragland was mostly recording his own music. “I didn’t get into producing other people until later,” he says. And at the same time, he began to get restless, thinking it might be time to enter the “straight” workforce. “I started to get hungry for the real world. I was thinking, ‘What does a real job look like?’”
He found balance. Ragland lived three days a week in Charlottesville, working on music, and lived with his girlfriend in Washington, D.C., the other four days. There he worked for an environmental policy think tank, Resources for the Future. “It’s not an advocacy organization,” he emphasizes. “They just look at the numbers and call it like it is.” His work involved cost-benefit analysis of regulatory scenarios for power plant sulfur emission.
Ragland characterizes the think tank’s activities as “super-important work done by really cool, down-to-earth economists. And a lot of the work that I was doing required keen attention to detail,” he says. “That really honed that sort of muscle in my brain. So now, for every project I apply a sort of economic modeling perspective.” He finds that the discipline of looking holistically at problems and issues serves him well in his music business endeavors, and in life in general.
The economists were very supportive of Ragland’s music career. “So, when I came back to Virginia, I still rented my little cottage on the outskirts of Charlottesville on this beautiful horse farm,” he says. “The guest bedroom was my recording studio.” But as much as he enjoyed the work—not to mention the steady paycheck—at Resources for the Future, music still exerted a strong pull: “It was something that I couldn’t shake; I needed to engage more deeply in my relationship with it.”
He began to think about graduate studies in music, and then he learned about a program at the New England Conservatory in Boston. It was a course of study under pianist/composer Rand Blake, based on what Ragland calls Blake’s “very eccentric methodology of intensive ear training.” He applied to the two-year program and was accepted. And repeating his pattern of sticking around longer than expected, Garland ended up working and studying in Boston for eight years, and was able to plunge deeply into the production side of music. He set up a recording studio in a space inside a large warehouse used by bands for rehearsal.
“It was transformative,” he remembers, of his extended Boston stint. “Working with my classmates and members of the department, I had an incredible opportunity to do a lot of recording work, and to hone my skills. I’d just bring all my friends over [to the studio]—a lot of rock bands and whatnot—and I really cut my teeth as a producer.”
A New Song
At the same time, parts of his past were calling him. “Having grown up in Winston-Salem, Boston was far away from home,” Ragland says. His family did have roots a bit closer, with a small family farm in rural West Virginia, near the New River Gorge, that had been in the family since the 1700s. As he grew to adulthood, Ragland had found himself more interested in his Appalachian heritage. And while he was in Boston, his parents made the decision to renovate the Antebellum farmhouse.
Ragland knew he wanted to be involved in the restoration project. He asked himself, “How can I find some music-related work that would give me an opportunity to spend time in West Virginia?” The answer was found in connecting with the producers of NPR and West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s immensely popular Mountain Stage.
Ragland proposed an annual, nationally-promoted, singer-songwriter festival done under the auspices of the program; thus was born the Mountain Stage NewSong Festival. “In 2001, some partners and I started an LLC around this, a private production company,” he says. But he admits that none of his prior experience prepared him for the challenge: “I had never done anything on the entrepreneurial side before. But I was traveling down there while still taking classes, performing in Boston, raising money, and doing pitches.”
The festival drew big names like Nickel Creek along with up-and-coming talent. “It was really a celebration of the art and craft of performance and songwriting,” Ragland says. Unfortunately, the annual festival was never able to turn a profit. “We had some great coverage,” Ragland says. “The Washington Post wrote about us. We were in the weekend entertainment guide, and USA Today did a really nice feature on us.” But bad weather wrecked a few festivals in a row. “We weren’t well-capitalized enough to survive some of those tough early years. And after a few years of producing the festival, doing a lot of work remotely on the ground, traveling and trying to fund raise, I wasn’t really enjoying the work. So, we decided to discontinue the festival.
“I learned a lot from the experience. Failure is part of the process.”
A Newer NewSong
Part of the festival had included a performance and songwriting competition. And Ragland decided to keep that part of the venture going. Now in its 16th year, the annual NewSong Music Performance & Songwriting Competition is an incubator for rising talent from across the musical landscape. “Over the last ten or so years, it has become an increasingly well-respected competition for emerging artists,” Ragland says. “Last year we had five thousand artists enter the competition. I’m continually surprised by the caliber of the artists we attract.”
For the last five years, the competition’s final event has been at Lincoln Center in New York City. A partnership with performing rights organization ASCAP means that each year’s winners earns a performance slot during the Sundance Film Festival’s music showcase.
“I get to go out there every January or February. It’s wonderful to bring these unknown artists that I’m working with out there.”
Another part of the prize package is a fully-funded six song EP produced and recorded at Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville, a sponsor of the competition. 2014’s winner, the duo Max Hatt/Edda Glass, was the first to take advantage of the studio package. “There are other competitions out there that are like, ‘We’ll give you $10,000 worth of studio gear,’” Ragland notes. “But we structure things in a way that tries to give artists some meaningful, high-credibility performance opportunities. I’d like to think that’s what the program is all about: career boosting.”
Virginia-based roots musician Crys Matthews was the winner of the 2017 NewSong competition; she just completed an Echo Mountain session in July, with Ragland producing. Like all previous winners, her submitted recording gained the judges’ approval, but winning the NewSong competition requires much more.
“We have a very limited number of spots to perform in the finals,” Ragland explains. “So, if there is [an] equal level of talent and ability illustrated through the entrants’ song submissions, and we’re trying to decide between them, then we do a much deeper dive.” The judges review the artists’ social media presence, their booked performance schedule, and other factors that indicate potential. “We approach it like this: ‘Which of you is better suited to actually capitalize on this opportunity?’”
Ragland reflects a moment, then laughs. “I’m sort of on the entry-level of the music industry food chain. And that’s really where my passion is. I love working with emerging, talented artists and helping them, in as many ways as I can, try to rise above the noise. Because that’s probably as difficult now as it ever has been.”
Ragland appreciates the challenges facing artists in today’s ever-changing musical landscape. “You have to hustle so hard nowadays. There’s so much unrewarded genius out there that will never be heard of, because they don’t have the business acumen or the work ethic to really sit down and say, ‘I need to spend four hours a day promoting myself.’” The NewSong competition aims to support and encourage those creative artists who recognize that reality.
NewSong also presented this year’s annual LEAF Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition for which seven finalists played at the spring LEAF event in Black Mountain in order to land a paid, featured performance slot at the subsequent fall LEAF. This year’s winner was Asheville songstress Carly Taich, who also advanced as a finalist in the 2018 NewSong competition. (“I love Gar!” enthuses Taich. The LEAF competition was crazy—I was just blown away at winning and I’m stoked to play LEAF [in October] with my band.”)
“Even in college, I was hopeful that I would be able to make a living in music,” Ragland says. “I’ve always had aspirations of trying to make a living as a creative person. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that I’m doing what I’m doing now. What’s more of a surprise, though, is that I never anticipated being lucky enough to be here in Asheville, North Carolina.”
Garland had met his future wife, Meg, while in Boston, the pair eventually getting married in 2003. Two years later they relocated to Brooklyn, where Ragland again expanded his ventures. He launched an independent record label, NewSong Recordings, primarily to release the music of contest winners.
In April 2012 Ragland decided to tag along for a few dates on NewSong winner Arthur Alligood’s tour in support of his album One Silver Needle. “Arthur had a show in Asheville,” Ragland recalls. “Growing up in Winston-Salem, I was familiar with Asheville, and my wife and I had come here to celebrate an anniversary or two.” He had heard about Echo Mountain’s studio and decided to pay an impromptu visit. “I had some time to kill before the show,” he says.
“I just walked down to the building, rang the buzzer, and as luck would have it, the studio manager, Jessica Tomasin, answered the door.” Ragland introduced himself, explaining that he ran a label and a songwriting competition, and asked if he could check out the studio.
He didn’t know it, but Tomasin was on the NewSong mailing list and was very familiar with him and his work. “It was so serendipitous,” Ragland says. “I mean, she could’ve been at lunch or in a meeting, or an intern could have answered the call.” He and Tomasin spent about an hour talking. At one point in the conversation, the studio manager told Ragland, “We’re looking for new ways to promote the studio, and I’ve been meaning to reach out to you to talk about doing a partnership.”
In the course of that one short hour, the partnership was established. “We ended the tour on the roof of Echo’s API Studio, the Old Salvation Army building,” Ragland recalls. Tomasin was showing him the panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “And I said, under my breath, ‘God, what I wouldn’t do to live in Asheville, North Carolina.’ And she heard me. She said, “Why don’t you move in?” It had turned out that studio owner Steve Wilmans was looking for a tenant for one of the studio’s corner offices.
“My wife and I had just had our twin boys a year earlier,” Ragland recalls. “We were living in and loving New York. But we were feeling a financial and a space squeeze. We didn’t really see ourselves living there forever.” After leaving the Asheville studio, he called his wife: “Meg, you’re not going to believe this…” He says that his wife’s adventurous spirit fit perfectly with the opportunity.
“We knew that we were going to find a way to do the move, but I wanted to play a little hard to get,” says Ragland, with a laugh. He contacted the Economic Development Coalition (EDC) of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, asking if they had any resources to help facilitate a relocation of his wife’s unique publishing business. (Meg Ragland and her Plum Print business would wind up being profiled in the November 2016 issue of this magazine.) “I got connected to the EDC and Pam Lewis, who was running Venture Asheville at the time, and I made several trips down here,” he says. The family moved to North Carolina in 2012, a mere two days before their daughter started first grade at Claxton Elementary.
“I immediately moved into Echo Mountain,” says Ragland, “I do all of my record production work there, and I do all the other stuff out of there, too.”
A New Spin on Music and the Arts
Ragland is a serious fan of what used to look like a dead music format: vinyl records. And he’s not alone. “Millennials are the fastest-growing demographic for purchasing vinyl,” he notes. He thinks he knows why: “The tactile, experiential art form that it is, with its emphasis on the visual as well, makes it a multimedia purchase.” Vinyl’s resurgence gives him faith in humanity, because young people “who grew up in a completely digital environment are recognizing that there’s something missing in this world of zeros and ones. They’re looking for more authentic experiences.
“I think society as a whole is experiencing some degree of ‘digital fatigue,’ and perhaps for the first time in human history, we’re beginning to recognize the limitations of our digital, online experiences. That’s why house concerts are so popular, and why vinyl albums are making a tremendous comeback.”
It might dovetail nicely with Ragland’s creative career path—playing music, recording, producing, curating concerts, supporting new artists, and launching an indie label—to start a record-pressing business. And while the details remain under wraps for now, plans are moving forward for a music vinyl pressing plant in Asheville. “It could be a really timely opportunity to get into,” he says, with a broad smile. “It’s a work in progress, but pretty far along.”
But whether that venture spins into life or not, Gar Ragland remains busy with plenty of other pursuits that combine creativity and commerce. He’s approaching his three-year anniversary as Board Chair with the Asheville Area Arts Council. In that time, the organization has experienced a revitalization, launching the Refinery Creator Space on Coxe Avenue in the city’s resurgent South Slope district. (See page 37 in this issue, for a report on the state of the arts in our region.)
Thinking back to his youngest days, Ragland recalls the work of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County. “It was a big fundraising machine,” he says. But when he moved to Asheville, Ragland recognized both the enormity of the city’s creative capital and a troubling disconnect: “I was surprised that this community didn’t have a representative advocacy organization commensurate in profile and support.”
Striking a serious tone, Ragland articulates his concern, proposing, “I think that we are at risk as a community. Too many people—and most importantly, our community leaders—are not being proactive enough to address the concern about the sustainability of our creative class here. People just assume that the creative culture will just organically prosper.” He believes that a plan is essential. “Unless we as a community address this and have more financial support for the arts, we’re going to wake up in a few years and wonder: ‘Where did all the creatives go?’”
In his role with the Arts Council, Ragland aims to address those issues. “It’s our job as an organization to connect the dots,” he says. “People’s quality of life is directly correlated to the support of the arts. We’ve got a kick-ass board, and we’re all concerned about this dynamic.” In a fundamental way, his work with the Arts Council follows on directly from everything he’s done before in support of music and the arts.
Ragland is happy and fulfilled with the various components of his professional life. “I really love what I do,” he says. “I feel grateful to be able to do it, which makes it super easy to stay motivated. More often than not I feel like my professional journey is still in its infancy; I’m just getting started.”
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