On September 18, Academy Award winner, Grammy winner, and all-around gifted, young songwriter, Ryan Bingham will be self-releasing his fourth album, Tomorrowland, on his new imprint of Axster Bingham Records.
The 31-year-old songwriter with deep West Texas roots has a dual fondness for drafting timeless, poetic verses about hardscrabble, downtrodden souls and letting rip with late-‘60s Stones-style barroom stompers with a winning Texan hand in lieu of The Stones’ British, red-blooded rock and roll. The former half of Bingham’s musical duality and excellence is perfectly expressed in his Academy Award-winning “The Weary Kind” from the Scott Cooper film Crazy Heart, starring Oscar winner Jeff Bridges as the aging drunk and hard luck country songwriter Bad Blake.
“And this ain't no place for the weary kind / This ain't no place to lose your mind / This ain't no place to fall behind / Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try / Your lover's warm kiss / Is too damn far from your fingertips / You are the man that ruined her world”
Ryan Bingham - “The Weary Kind”
Bingham’s perceptive takes on hard times, drifters helplessly chasing elusive love, and the perfect release inherent with whiskey, women, and nights of rock and roll, are not unheard of in music with roots in country and a burning rock and roll heart. He rides his sturdy, nicotine-streaked and whiskey-weathered voice with total command like the formidable bucking bulls he surely reigned in during his young years on the pro rodeo circuit. His unmistakable voice and his drifter poetry marry to astounding affect. Throw in loud guitar and a strong band behind him, and you’ve got an incredible songwriter and musician blessed with a rich collection of choice weapons.
Bingham cites indelible influences as legendary and disparate as Joe Ely, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Woody Guthrie, The Rolling Stones, and Merle Haggard, among others. He’s not the first man to write songs like this with well-worn boots and a bloodied heart, but this former rodeo pro (now happily residing in Los Angeles with his wife and business partner) is the best of his generation at this kind of songwriting.
On Friday, Bingham phoned me late morning PST from California to discuss the upcoming Tomorrowland, his engaged relationship with his fans, and the inception of his own label (with a great deal of it healthy laughter throughout).
TST:Hi, Ryan. How are you?
RB:Good, how are you?
TST:I am fantastic! Thank you so much for taking a couple of minutes, man. Where are you right now? Are you at home?
RB:I’m in Venice, CA right now at the moment. Most of the time, now, I live in Los Angeles now and like to hang out in Venice.
TST: First off, I’d like to talk about the new album. I’m really intrigued by it. So far, I’ve heard the single “Heart of Rhythm” and “As I Do My Dancing,” which I know won’t be on the new album. I wanted to ask you about the decision to go under Ryan Bingham and not Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses for the first time since Mescalito. Did the Dead Horses play on the album, or was it just you and Justin Stanley (co-producer) putting it together by yourselves?
RB:Yeah, it was a totally new band on the record. You know we’ve been hitting up the road pretty hard the past few years with the Dead Horses, and some of the guys have other projects going on as well. I just kind of wanted to experiment with some different things on this record. So, it was basically me and Justin Stanley and a couple other guys.
TST: I read that you added some new sounds on Tomorrowland. I know you went a bit more electric. The electric guitar and rock and roll definitely come across on “Heart of Rhythm.” How would you compare the sound of the album to the rest of your stuff?
RB: Yeah, definitely it’s a record that comes across live. That last record (Junky Star) was a very dark album for me, you know, very acoustic. By the end of it, it’s kind of sad, and touring and playing those songs every night has been a bit of a challenge for me. I’ve had quite a bit of time off this past year and have been thinking about the new record. I just wanted it to be a lot of fun playing the songs live on the road. Um, you know, that was very much the joy: turning it up live and playing the electric guitar. That was kind of the basic mentality I had going into it.
TST: I truly enjoy just about anything you do. You do a song like “The Weary Kind,” and it receives an unbelievable amount of recognition, which it deserves. You do have plenty of great, sad songs, especially on a record like Junky Starwith “The Poet” and “Junky Star,” but you also bring true rockers like “Depression” and “Strange Feelin’ in the Air.”
I’ve seen you twice in Indianapolis over the years, I saw you once when I was living in Austin, and I saw you again last fall when I flew out for ACL. When people see you live, you guys are definitely a full-blooded rock and roll band. That’s what I love more than anything, even though I also dig the versatility on records with the sadder ballads up against the rock and roll songs.
RB:Yeah, man. That really is kind of how it is. There are still a couple of songs where I’ve broken them down and are slower, but the majority of the record is big, electric and live. I really think it’s gonna be a lot of fun playing live. There are a couple of songs more focused back on the tempos, the guitar, the music, and the song lyrically; but there’s a bunch of songs on there too that, you know, don’t ignore the realities of life and still kinda dig into a deeper side. So, I’m lookin’ forward to it.
TST:I read something on your Facebook page the other day, and I want you to verify that it’s true because I have a hard time believing it. You quizzed fans about the first song you ever wrote, and your answer was “Southside of Heaven.” Is that really true?
RB:Yeah, it is. It was the first song that I really wrote. I had some other little things that I just scrapped around with, but it was the first song, the first one that really came together, and really hit me hard, and that I still like playing today.
TST: The first time I saw you was back in ’09 or so. Roadhouse Sun had just come out and I had picked up Mescalitothe week of the show. I was obsessed with “Southside of Heaven,” and I still am to this day. Hearing it live – I don’t know – you get to about the 4:30 mark or so, and (laughs) if you’re not taken away by that song, then you simply don’t have a heart or don’t love music. But-
(Hearty laugh on Ryan’s end)
-I mean, honestly, “and money can’t buy my soul, because it comes from a hard-earned place.”That blows my mind that a line like that was your first attempt at songwriting, and it’s an extraordinary feat. I’m deeply happy every time you play it, man.
RB:Thanks, I appreciate that.
You’re welcome. That’s why I’m excited about the new album to be honest. Each new album I’ve gotten, whether it has been Mescalito, Roadhouse Sun, or Junky Star, there are certain songs that just deeply imbedded in me. “Southside of Heaven” was that way for me on Mescalito. “Depression,” in particular, was that way for me on Junky Star. I just got floored every time you got to the line: “I’d rather lay down in a pine box than sell my heart to a fucking wasteland.” That just killed me.
(Big laughter on Ryan’s end)
There’s an ultimate release that’s just wonderful about it. I’m curious to see what will top “Heart of Rhythm” for me on Tomorrowland.
RB:Right on, man!
Ryan Bingham - "Depression"
TST:I read that you said your two greatest achievements in life were getting married and not ending up in jail. Do you want to expand upon that at all?
RB:Yeah, man. Growing up, I was out on my own a little early. I don’t know, I’d get in trouble, and when I’d get in trouble there wasn’t anyone there to get me out. I guess I just figured out kinda early on that wasn’t a place I wanted to be. I just really spent my youth just trying to stay out of trouble. I guess, you know, whenever I got married, that was my family then. It’s a great feeling to be part of a family and have all of that. I don’t know; it’s one of the best things to have ever happened to me for sure.
TST:Both of those things – finding love and fighting to stay out of trouble – come through in your songs, and everyday average Joes like me and you and anybody else definitely relate to those themes.
RB:Right on, man.
TST: Let me ask you about social media. As I said, I was on your Facebook page, and I’ve seen you on Instagram and Twitter. I saw that you’re doing a t-shirt design contestfor the upcoming tour. Are you a person who genuinely enjoys engaging in social media and staying in constant contact, or do you feel it is more of an obligatory thing to do these days as a musician?
RB:You know what? It has been kind of a big learning curve for me. In the beginning, I wasn’t with it at all. I kinda felt uncomfortable with that kind of communication or just the private feel of it, but now that I’ve gotten into it – especially as me and my wife are doing the whole thing ourselves – it’s very much under our control. We can just kind of regulate it in our own way. We can put whatever stuff into it that we want to, but we don’t have to cross whatever barriers that we don’t want to.
But for me, going out and touring, making records, and playing for the fans - the fans and the people are really the only reason I go out and play. If people didn’t wanna hear the songs, I’d go out and do somethin’ the fuck else.
(Big laughs on both ends)
That’s really my driving force to keep writing. Through the social media stuff and being able to connect - for me, it’s kind of great because I can relate to the fans in a way that they understand me a little bit better, where I’m comin’ from, what I’ve been through, why I write these songs and what they mean. There’s no kind of misconceptions when I hit the shows about what kind of music I play. I just think it’s a great way to communicate. Then also, you know, I get to know who my fans are as well.
RB:I don’t feel like I’m playing to complete strangers every night when I’m out on the road. It has actually been a pretty cool support structure. It has been a pretty new thing to me that has taken some getting used to, but the more interacting and communicating I’ve done, the more I enjoy it every day.
TST:That’s really cool to hear, man - especially the part where you talk about doing it for the fans and doing whatever the fuck else if nobody appreciated it. From a die-hard fan’s perspective, and speaking for everybody else too, we love hearing that.
RB:That’s just really coming from a part of who I am, you know. It opens my world up to be a lot more creative when the fans are open to it. There are several people out there that just want me to play the older stuff and the old songs, and there are people out there that say, “Oh man, we love the new stuff.” So, it encourages me to go out and not be tied down to anything. It frees you when your fans are open to stuff and are willing to hear you experiment. That definitely encourages me a lot, you know?
TST:Oh, yeah. You strike me as a guy very in touch with your fans. You mentioned your new label. I was kind of caught off guard when you started your label and left Lost Highway, because there are a bunch of people that I love who are on Lost Highway. Did you leave because you wanted to be independent and do everything on your own terms, or was it for another reason?
RB:Man, Lost Highway was great! Especially, you know, when I first signed to Lost Highway, I was fortunate to be an artist who got one of the last artist development deals. A lot of labels now aren’t willing to sign really young bands or aren’t willing to go with the slow process of expanding a base. So, I was definitely fortunate to have their support in the beginning. I’m still learning a lot. I was trying to figure out where I was going and just writing these songs.
Over the past few years, with the industry itself, you know, labels are just kind of disappearing and with the active social media and the internet, it’s just a lot more accessible for guys like me on a smaller scale – you know, I really make my living touring and playing music, rather than getting commercial radio play or selling records – so for me, it’s all about the fans and playing live shows. We can do all of that on our own through social media and the internet. I can record a song at home and share it with you guys and say, “What do you think?” With records, I kind of like the fact that I can just ask fans straight up without going through any kind of middleman. “Do you guys like the song? Do you want me to record it?” I mean, we can go from there, you know?
TST:I read in an interview a few weeks back that you had mentioned possibly working a few covers into your sets on tour this time around. In the interview, you said you’d been thinking about maybe doing Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Then, I saw yesterday that you posted your cover of the song on Facebook. You can tell you did on your own and shot at home, and it’s just a magnificent cover that is just simply shot with you, a guitar and a camera. This environment, though, allows you to say, “Hey, what do you guys think about this?” and get legitimate feedback.
RB:Yeah totally, man. Covering any Dylan song is always a daunting task. It’s not like I’m trying to recreate any emotion in why he wrote that song or anything; I guess, for me, it’s like I meet kids all the time who don’t know who Bob Dylan is. And I’m like, “Wow!” So, for me, it’s just a way to share things that I’ve really been influenced by that are a part of me that has kind of created who I am as well. I can give it a shot and if people like to hear it, then I’m definitely open to playing it for people.
Ryan Bingham - "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (Bob Dylan cover)
TST: One short video I watched your YouTube clip about Tomorrowland pre-orders. You talked about autographing every CD that’s ordered before the album release. Does that go for vinyl too?
TST:That’s a really cool thing to be doing, and I guess one of the perks of being on your own label. That’s a special thing as a fan to be able to buy directly from the artist, have him autograph it the work he put his heart and soul into, and then you get to own it. I applaud you for that.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about your worst gig ever. I read where you talked about your show in Mississippi a few years back where you were playing alongside mice racing.
(Gut-busting laughter on Ryan’s end)
My question is: For you – who is from the south, mentions living out of his car and constantly being on the road – was it stranger to play a gig alongside racing mice, or was it a more surreal experience to walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards in a tux, mingle with Hollywood, and, ultimately, give an acceptance speech in front of the crowd after winning an Oscar?
RB:Really, it wasn’t that bad of a gig in Mississippi. It was an awesome gig! We had a blast, you know. I’d say we definitely fit in.
(Big laughs on both ends)
It just kind of came up, because it was kind of a dirty place and whatever, but at the end of the day, we had a blast there. You know, playing in a restaurant where people are eating and don’t give a fuck about you in the first place, those are the worst ones! (Laughs)
TST:Yeah, I would imagine.
RB:But, being on the red carpets and all, you know, that’s not me at all. Yeah, you’re right about that.
TST: “The Weary Kind” got a ton of acclaim for its association with Crazy Heart, and you deservingly won an Academy Award and a Grammy for it. I knew the song from the outset, but I never realized you were going to be in the film. I remember seeing Crazy Heartin a theater in Austin, and you and the Dead Horses popped up on the film, and I was just elated. I noticed that nobody ever seems to mention you being on screen. Does anybody ever talk to you about your acting in the movie?
RB:Nah, not really, you know. It’s such a small part that I don’t think a lot of people even realize that I was in it. I really didn’t have to do a lot of acting; I just kind of had to be myself.
TST:Yeah, you really just seemed like yourself onstage. I remember just sitting there, grinning ear-to-ear and being really happy seeing it. You didn’t get a Screen Actors Guild card or anything out of it?
RB:Yeah, I think I did, but it only lasts for a year or something. If you don’t continue for a certain amount of time, it kind of goes away. That little acting stint thing, it was short-lived, but it was fun.
(Laughs on both ends)
TST:I can’t wait to hear the album, Ryan. You’ll get my pre-order online very soon.
RB:Cool, man. Well, I’ll sign one and send it to you.
TST: Well, thank you! I know you’re not making it through Indy this time around, but I saw you’re playing in Louisville. I’ll make the road trip down there and say “Hey.”
RB:Yeah, man! Take a road trip. We’ll have a good one!
Ryan Bingham - "Never Ending Show"
*This interview first appeared on 8/27/12 on The Silver Tongue
**This interview has been condensed from its original format.
Justin works as a content producer for ChaCha in Indianapolis during the day. He got his start writing music pieces with Laundromatinee in Indianapolis, where he still makes featured contributions. Justin resides in Noblesville, IN, and his personal blog, Division St. Harmony, can be found at www.divisionstharmony.tumblr.com.
His first loves in music have long been The Clash, Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. His personal tastes are fairly broad and include garage, indie rock, classic rock, Americana, roots, outlaw and classic country, punk, blues, rhythm and blues and soul.
Justin takes pride in an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Justin welcomes you to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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