I had the opportunity to sit down with David Ragan, The Inspirations’ new lead singer, before a recent Inspirations concert.
DJM: Could you start with explaining a little bit about your background—both your upbringing and how you became exposed to Southern Gospel music?
David: I was exposed to southern gospel in Michigan. There’s not a lot of southern gospel up there! But in northern Michigan—Roscommon, Michigan, is my home town—the style of music that was preached, that was more acceptable in our circles, was more of a sacred music type style. It was really rooted in three different colleges that a lot of the people in our churches were from: Bob Jones University, Maranatha (up in Wisconsin), and Northland Baptist College (up in Wisconsin).
I was raised Independent Fundamental Baptist, very conservative. Southern Gospel, even conservative Inspirations-style, was not really accepted. Entertainment and ministry were not thought to be able to coexist.
I was exposed to it with my best friend’s cassette tape of the Inspirations, a 1993 recording Cry for The Children. The fifth song—the last song on the first side—was “Hide Me Rock of Ages.” I’d never heard bass singing like that in my life. To hear Mike Holcomb was just unbelievable.
I didn’t even care so much for the twang. It was like Christian country to me. I heard the steel guitars, I heard Archie—the high tenor—and said, “I don’t know if I’ll like that, but boy, that bass singer…he can do it!” So I made a copy. (I know that’s terrible!)
To that point I had heard quartets but not Southern Gospel and I loved the harmony, and so I began to learn the baritone part. My brothers and I started listening to that and we began imitating it. My youngest brother was nine at the time and he started hearing the tenor. So we were kind of the hit in our church. We did it a capella; we didn’t have all the instruments and stuff, and we didn’t twang as much. And it kind of rolled from there.
DJM: Did I read something at one point that you did some touring in your area? Did you do full concerts or just like a special music here and there in different churches.
David: It was a little of both, actually. Our first concert had about a hundred people. My best friend’s dad was involved in politics, and he was running for state senate. This would have been in 2002.
We called ourselves the Messengers. Actually we took that name because on the 2000 Inspirations video Matt Dibler says something right before he does another verse of “Resurrection Ground.” He says, “I love singing with the Inspirations because we have a message and not just music.”
Well that stuck with me, and I said, “Well, that’s a good philosophy to have.” So who carries the message? A messenger does, so we just called ourselves that.
We never gave any thought of touring, and we didn’t really tour.
DJM: Did you do any recordings?
David: We did three on our church’s sound system. It was terrible, but enough just to kinda preserve it enough. We gave them to people. We never sold anything—we really couldn’t, technically, because we didn’t pay the royalties on all that. So that might even be illegal, I don’t know!
But we went as far south as Detroit, and as far north as just south of the Mackinaw bridge. We went on the west side of the state and not so much the east side, but we got calls from lots of different pastors. Mom and Dad were sort-of…they were always involved. I was 15, 16, and 17 during the years we did that. They didn’t “promote” us—they said, “Well, we’re glad our kids are able to do this, but we don’t want them to turn into Christian celebrities. It was still kind of a touchy thing, you know. But I was the spark plug. I was the one that really kept us interested in it. The other guys would follow me—they were like, “Yeah, we’ll do this.” And I really began to fall in love with it. And I said “Man, I could do this all the time!” I just love making harmony. I love being a blessing to people, and to be a good example to people is a unique opportunity, I guess.
DJM: So was singing with your brothers the only touring/singing experience you had before singing with the Inspirations?
David: That’s 100% accurate. I went to college after I graduated high school. I went down to Pensacola.
DJM: Did you do a four years degree?
David: I did. I was there for four years—I was a Bible major. I studied general Bible. I would have studied music, but at the time when I went to school, I still had given no thought whatsoever to making music my career. Never had I thought of that. And so I couldn’t think of anything that I was really, really interested in except the Bible – I’ve always been a student of the Bible, I love to study it, and so I did. I never felt called to be a pastor or a preacher—I can preach and I have—but never really felt that call, so I just gave it a general degree. Still, it’s a liberal arts college, it was a good price for the degree and everything, so I did that.
I got approached many times to travel for the school. They send out quartets and stuff, but it wasn’t exactly what I was really interested in. They did some Southern Gospel songs, but it was more or less, you’re promoting the college. And I didn’t want to necessarily do that. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I said, “Nah…” And there was some politics involved with that too, and I just didn’t want to get involved in that.
But during school I did sing just for fun with other guys, but that was about it.
DJM: So when did you graduate?
David: I graduated in May of 2008—that would have been last May.
DJM: A year and a couple months ago…
David: After I graduated, I went home, having no idea what to do, I went back home to Michigan. I worked for the state of Michigan in a state park for a summer, just as a summer job. And McDonalds. I did both of those. I learned that I’m never gonna complain again when my food is late, because it’s a hard job!
But still I had no idea what to do with my life until Martin called in September.
DJM: So did he call you out of the blue, or had you already known that Matt was leaving?
David: I had no idea that Matt was leaving.
DJM: He knew you were into singing, then?
David: Oh, yeah, let me kinda back up. When my brothers and I were singing, in 2002, we had just started to sing. Mr. Lowe, my best friend Nathan’s dad, was really the one who really pushed us. He was like, “Come on, guys, you need to keep singing. Sing over here, sing over there…” And we never would’ve sung for the Inspirations if not for him.
We went to hear them down in Romeo, Michigan. First Baptist Church of Romeo. It’s north of Detroit, on the way to Port Huron. Actually, it’s really close to where Matt Dibler grew up. It was about a 4-hour drive for us to go down there, but we would’ve gone anywhere to see the Inspirations. This would’ve been the second time we saw them. They were all there that night except Mike. Mike was at his son’s wedding, I believe. So Marlin Schubert was filling in. So that was really neat to get to meet him. I missed Mike, though—I really wanted to hear him.
But before that concert started, Mr. Lowe had told the guys, “Hey, these kids sing your songs!” We were like, “Ssh, don’t tell him!”
He was like, “Can they sing one for you right here?” He just volunteered us! So we sang “The Great I Am,” which was the first song we ever sung together. It’s off of Pure Vintage. And we did it all together. Right in the lobby, people started gathering around. He caught it on film and everything. And they just fell in love with us—“Wow, that’s really neat that young kids like that…” I mean, it was mostly older folks at the concert. We we were just so excited to be there…teenagers.
That was what introduced them to us. We just kept up with them. Anytime they were in Michigan, we’d be there, and just stayed friends with them.
When I went down to college, I was just a big fan, never gave any thought. I knew all the songs and stuff.
They came to Pensacola in January of 2005. I went and saw them, just a couple of miles away from the campus. Martin called me aside, and he said, “Hey, I remember you from up in Michigan.”
I said, “Yeah, yeah.”
He said, “I want you to give me your number, and I want you to take my number down. Call me about once a month. Just let me know where you’re at. I’m always looking for someone who’s able to fill in if we need him.”
I thought, “Oh, that’s cool!”
He said, “What can you sing?”
I said, “I can sing lead or baritone.”
He said, “Okay, well if anybody is ever out for any reason, we’ll give you a call—you’ll be the first person I call.”
I thought, “Oh, great!”
He asked me some other questions about my beliefs and things, just wanting to make sure I was about what they represented. So everything was okay there. And it was about a year and a half after that when I was able to fill in for the first time.
Matt and I knew each other from Michigan as well.
DJM: So this would be mid-2005?
David: It was early 2005 when he gave me his number. It was in May of 2006 that I filled in for the first time. Matt was out.
I still wasn’t sure I could do lead—I’d never done lead before. I knew I could sing high enough, but I’d never done it. So I started working on it, thinking, “I’d better learn that!” I’d just sung baritone with my brothers. I liked it.
So Matt called me in April, in my dorm room—blew me out of the water!
I picked up my phone in my room—I wasn’t even thinking about nothing—and he said, “Hey, this is Matt Dibler.”
I said, “Oh my goodness! Really?”
He said, “How would you like to sing with the Inspirations?”
I thought he was joking. I said, “Ah, that’s funny!”
He said, “No, I’m serious. I’ve got to be out. My daughter’s graduating from high school” – Sabrina was graduating on Memorial Day weekend, in 2006, and he said, “I need you to fill in for me.” He said, “We’ll fly you down, pick you up, and we’ll sing in Southern Carolina, West Virginia, and Tennessee.”
Of course, I said yes, and it was then that I fell in love with what they did. And I saw really behind the scenes—what’s behind these men, who are these people? They’re more than just singers. And I began to see that these guys really live what they sing. That was the important thing.
That struck home with me. ‘Cause I’m not about the show—well, to a certain degree, you do put on a show, so to speak. You have to be careful with that, though. And I began to see the heart behind these men. I said, “I want to be a part of something that’s real, something that’s not too out there, something that I can identify with, and that I can be an influence in.”
And that’s really what drew me to it.
DJM: So did you fill in at all between that and when you got the job?
David: Kind of, that would have been, I did three days in ’06. The only time I saw after that would have been when they came back to Pensacola once a year. So I saw them two more times before I graduated.
Well, when they came back in ’07, after I had filled in, they pulled me up on stage. They knew that I was gonna be there and I knew that I would get to sing a couple of songs, so I wore a suit, and everything. They pulled me up, and I sang a couple of songs. That was neat—all my friends were there, and everything, and they were like, “Wow, you really did sing with the Inspirations!”
And then the next year, Matt didn’t even come. He had something else going on. But Matt was definitely not coming, and he called me. This was ’08, right before I graduated. He said, “I can’t be there,” for some reason—I don’t remember what it was—and said, “So you’ll have to do the whole night.”
I said, “Okay, that’s great!” So I did—I did the whole thing. Boy, I wasn’t ready for it. I hadn’t been singing regularly at school, so they wore me out. They did everything high, and…boy, that’s one thing, the Inspirations sing more songs in a set than anybody does.
DJM: Because you don’t have the soundtracks, and the long intros and endings…
David: …that is a lot of it…
DJM: And because you’ll do a couple of songs in a row without Martin saying anything.
David: Well, sometimes even more than that. We were in Louisiana one night, and we did thirty-two in the first set. (Somebody counted.) Well, that wears you out!
If somebody says, “There’s no set program,” Martin’s gonna take it and run with it. Sometimes that’s OK, sometimes you just look over there and say, “My word!” It’ll wear you out.
DJM: So how many songs might he call on a given night?
David: Hmm. I would say there’s a possibility of about 60-70 songs, reasonably possible.
DJM: So has he caught you off guard with a song you haven’t practiced?
David: Not yet. Not one we haven’t practiced.
That isn’t a huge deal for me, because I was such a nerd, if I can use that word, such an Inspirations nerd that I knew them all, just like that. In the car, at home…they were my hobby! I didn’t have Michael Jordan on my wall—though I love basketball—I didn’t even have the Michigan State team on my wall. I had the Inspirations. They were my heroes. I looked up to them because of the lives they lived behind what they did as a profession. I knew everything about them. But I tried not to get too geeky, so they wouldn’t get annoyed at me, or whatever!
DJM: Speaking of your inspirations, who else do you look at as heroes of the faith, perhaps non-musical? Anywhere from the time of Christ through now.
David: I love the apostle Paul. As you read through the Bible … He’s written so much of the New Testament. I love him because of the practical things he brings out. And you can see a lot of his personality through his writings.
I think the world of my dad. My dad has taught me a lot.
DJM: What’s his name?
David: His name is Dave Ragan, Sr. My dad had been a military man, off and on through his life. He’s always been one of those blue-collar guys. He’s completely faithful to his family. I look up to my mom and dad equally—they have the best marriage I’ve ever seen. There is nothing more secure for young people growing up than to see that. It’s been a great blessing, because I didn’t choose for them to have that marriage, but they decided to put the Lord first. Their kids turned out well because of it, and I give them a ton of credit for that.
DJM: Speaking of your family, aren’t you part Filipino?
David: Yes. I’m actually half.
I’ll just briefly tell you that story. My dad was in the Marine Corps, and was stationed in Subic Bay in the Philippines, and met my mom. My mom was born over there; she is native Filipino. They were married over there—had a Filipino wedding—and I was born over there. I was there for about nine months, I believe—I don’t remember that, but I’m taking their word for it!—I was there for about nine months, and then my mom and I were shipped over here, if you will.
I don’t have any recollection of it, and I don’t really have a lot of attachment to that culture, but that is my heritage. I’ve never been back since. My mom has been back once. I was born in Olongopo City in the Philippines. And then when my Dad finished his third year in the Marine Corps, he stopped, didn’t renew his contract, and came back. And that was where I was born. But I was raised here my whole life.
I don’t know if I’m the first Filipino to be in Southern Gospel.
DJM: I remember some discussion over that. Was Armond Morales, of the Weatherfords and Imperials—was he Filipino?
David: I thought he was Hawaiian or something else. I asked somebody. But I think he would be the only other one, if that.
I guess that may make me unique, I don’t know!
DJM: In your opinion, what makes Southern Gospel Southern Gospel, and not some other genre?
David: That is a great question.
DJM: And one I’ve wanted to ask an Inspiration forever!
David: That is a great question, and I’m so glad to be able to answer that. Because I’m one of those people who, if I cannot tell you why I believe something, I won’t believe it. I have to know why. That’s just something about me. If you could sum up my entire personality, it’s “Why?”–“Why this, why that?” It makes you more solid of a person, if you can say, “Right or wrong, this is why I am who I am.” This is why. You’re more sure of yourself, you’re a more confident person.
I’ve looked at this. I don’t believe that Southern Gospel is a style of music. It is a genre of music. It is a classification, but it does not necessarily refer to the style. And I say that simply because there is such a broad range of style. How do you put a cap on it? You have the Crabb Family (or what used to be the Crabb Family), you have Gold City, which has varied in its almost thirty years of being around. The Inspirations have been one of the few groups who have stayed the same, which has been a recipe of success for them, but I don’t think you can point to one group and say, “That’s what Southern Gospel should sound like.”
There are preferences of styles. It’s hard to say, “This one’s wrong.” Now I don’t think rap’s gonna find its way into Southern Gospel, I just don’t think that’s gonna fly…
DJM: If rap is music at all!
David: I don’t look at it as that, at all.
I only listen to Southern Gospel. Well, some country—a little bit of country, just because I like the sound. I love the country feel.
I love Gold City. I love the Kingdom Heirs. I love the Kingsmen. I like Legacy Five—all of those groups. I think the world of those people. And not all of the Inspirations would feel this way, but this is personally, I believe that all that works together to promote what is really Southern Gospel music—which is the Gospel itself. I believe Southern Gospel is its own entity because it has stayed true to the roots of what the Gospel really is.
I believe there’s a lot of “gospel” and “Christian” music out there that’s nothing more than fluff. There’s no doctrine. That’s a word a lot of people don’t like to use, but all it means is “teaching.” There’s no teaching in it. There’s nothing about the blood, there’s nothing about the Lord Jesus Christ and His death, there’s nothing about Hell. Those are not positive topics all the time, but they have to be there for the Gospel to be there. What the Gospel actually is has to be promoted for it to be true Gospel music, in my opinion. And a group that will faithfully do that regardless of style, regardless perhaps even of how they dress—though that can be important, I’m not diminishing that, and I respect the Inspirations for being conservative in those areas all those years, and I think that’s good—but Gold City’s changed a little bit in that. The Crabb Family would be considered Southern Gospel; you can look at their songs and see good Christian doctrine.
I’m not gonna divide. I’m not gonna divide with Ernie Haase & Signature Sound. I don’t prefer to dance [laughs], that’s not my thing. But I know Ernie’s a good guy. I’ve read so many things he’s written on blogs, and on his own website, and I say, “You know, that’s not coming from a guy who’s just out to make money.” And so I support that. Would I prefer it? Well, I wouldn’t necessarily want to watch him, but I’ve got all his music! It’s all solid. I mean, there’s a couple goofy songs here and there.
DJM: Happy Birthday Anniversary Too. [both laugh]
David: Yeah. That’s probably not gonna drive somebody to the altar, you know!
But that’s what I believe it is. And that’s my goal, to promote it. You cannot change your message.
Styles will change. You can look at rock and roll music from the 50s and 60s and compare it to the Gospel music of today. Some of Gold City’s stuff would be considered with a more driving beat or rhythm than the Beatles would have when they started.
All of those things will change. Culture will change—it’s designed to. Language changes. Personalities will change. People change. But the message of the Gospel is timeless. But as long as Southern Gospel music, and those who claim to represent it, remains true to that message, and says, “We’re gonna stand on the Word of God, no matter how unpopular,” it will always be Southern Gospel music, and God will always bless that. He always promises to bless His Word, because His Word will not come back void. And if we lift up His Word and promote it, we cannot go wrong.
And that’s what I believe Southern Gospel is.
DJM: Suppose the year is 1983, and you have the choice of singing for any Gospel group besides the Inspirations. Who would you sing with in that era?
David: Gold City. I love Gold City.
I consider Ivan Parker to be the best lead singer ever. You cannot top Ivan’s rendition of “The Midnight Cry,” in my opinion. Other people have tried, but I love Ivan’s rendition.
And I love Gold City when they changed, with Jonathan Wilburn and Jay Parrack. Jay Parrack’s my all-time favorite tenor singer. Mark Trammell, Jonathan Wilburn, Jay Parrack, and Tim Riley—to me, that was the Gold City. I would’ve sung baritone with them in a heartbeat. I love Gold City. And I loved the live band.
DJM: Would you like to say something about the new CD?
David: That was my first experience in the studio, ever.
I was a little nervous about it. I was put in the spotlight—they take your voice and they analyze it, “Could this be done better?” It’s very humbling. But I was ready for it, and they helped out.
I just gotta say—I have to give Melton and Mike a ton of credit. They’ve helped me, vocally and otherwise. They’re patient with me. I’d never sung in a group before. Melton’s the least mature Inspiration, if you will, besides Dallas and myself, and he’s been there ten years! That’s a long time, to be the guy that’s been with the group the shortest!
So they were used to certain things, and when we went into the studio, I was super happy with how it turned out.
Now I’m very critical of my own voice, and I’ve got a lot of work to do. And I’ve got a long ways to go. But when I heard the finished product, I thought, “I really like that.”
We put a higher top to the Inspirations’ sound than has ever been put.
DJM: A higher top?
David: It’s a higher sound.
DJM: With Dallas having a young voice…
David: Yes. With Archie’s voice, we did the harmonies a little lower. Don’t get me wrong; Archie’s the man—I love Archie! But with Dallas there, we’re able to expand the harmony higher.
DJM: Didn’t you sing with the Inspirations for a couple of months before Archie came off the road?
David: My first date would’ve been in September. It was the last couple weeks of September.
DJM: ‘Cause you weren’t at NQC.
David: No, I wasn’t at NQC. It was right after that. I got called right before NQC, and he told me to prepare to come at the end of September. I was not actually completely hired on until the end of December, right after Christmas.
DJM: I remember hearing about a trial period.
David: Yeah, it was like three months long! All of October, all of November, and all of December. He just took that long to make up his mind, or whatever. But I never missed a date. So I sang about five months with Archie, full-time.
I told him when he left, “It’s been an honor singing with someone like you.” I don’t believe his tenure will ever be matched. Forty-five years to sing the high tenor part…no, there’s no way. The only guy that’s even close is Brian Free…
DJM: And that’s with two different groups.
David: Yeah. And he sings a ton higher, too. He’s one of those “freak people,” kind of like Jay.
DJM: Gold City tends to attract freaks, at least to the tenor part!
David: Yeah—all their tenor singers have been like that.
DJM: And their lead singers could have sung tenor for other groups.
David: That’s true.
DJM: Any other thoughts or comments you wanted to make?
David: Well, I appreciate your blog. I go on there quite a bit, just to see what’s going on. I appreciate the positive comments. I know others are out there, and they have the freedom to do what they do, but I appreciate your positive input. People like you and Aaron Swain are trying to help promote it,. You’re doing something that we can’t do. And we’re thankful to you for that.
We just ask everybody to keep us in their prayers. We need the prayers. We really do—we need to be prayed for.
We need to work together—all the groups, and everyone in each group—to stay as strong as we can, to stay close to the Lord.
DJM: How can people get in contact with the Inspirations, and with you?
David: Anybody can email me at any time. I’ll give my personal email address, that’s no problem. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org. (21 was my basketball number in high school). And then the Inspirations’ website is www.theinspirations.com. You can call the office at 828-497-2060, and you can talk to Ronnie Hutchins, the Inspirations’ original lead singer. You can order our CDs and DVDs from him.
Write or call anytime.
DJM: Thank you very much!
David: Thank you.
DJM: I appreciate it.