Ryan Bingham: From Country Roads to AmericanaramA
Ryan Bingham might look, act and talk like a cowboy, and maybe that’s where his crazy heart ultimately lies. But there’s more to the singer-songwriter’s backstory than the scratchy voice he can raise to eardrum-splitting levels and the hardscrabble past that’s impossible to forget.
The 32-year-old musician with a sense of adventure has a Los Angeles zip code (along with Hollywood-handsome movie star looks and an Academy Award to go with it). Yet the unassuming artist seems just as comfortable talking about his love of the outdoors and playing “some pretty rough little shithole kind of bars.”
Those type of places were frequent stops on a road paved with gravel and grit as he graduated from steering a Suburban to stretching out on a custom tour bus with its own driver.
Before again heading out on tour, which includes a stop at the 2013 Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama, on May 17, Bingham took a few minutes to discuss upcoming projects, false perceptions and why a certain state gets under his skin.
He will experience his latest “how-did-I-get-here?” moment when he joins Bob Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket on the AmericanaramA tour that rolls throughout the country this summer.
Invigorated yet incredulous about the prospect of sharing the bill with some of the genre’s most valuable players, Bingham didn’t have a go-to answer when asked how this bit of good fortune fell into his lap.
“You know, I’m not really sure,” he said on the phone from his L.A. home. “I know that in the past years, Dylan has been doing a tour in the summertime with (John) Mellencamp and Willie (Nelson) and those guys, and I guess they decided to change it up this year. I don’t know, somehow they invited us to be on the bill and I’m really excited about it. …
“We just kind of got a phone call one morning and said, ‘Like hell, yeah. Let’s do it.’ ”
Until then (his part on that tour begins July 18), Bingham and his band — Nashville guitarist Evan Weatherford and Los Angeles rhythm section Isaac Carpenter (drums) and Shawn Davis (bass) — have already started a steady stream of dates that will cover most of the country.
It’s nothing like right after he put down the rodeo gear to pick up an acoustic guitar and begin a music career that got a boost when “The Weary Kind” won an Oscar for best original song presented in 2010.
“Oh shit, a lot’s changed, definitely,” he said about starting out with only a drummer and “not knowing where we were gonna be from one day to the next. … It’s definitely a different ballgame now.”
On a luxurious tour bus that includes his bandmates and Anna Axster, his wife of almost three years who happens to be his manager, Bingham laughingly likens it to a traveling circus, saying, “Set it up and tear it down each night and move on to the next town.”
At the moment, the ringmaster sounds like he wouldn’t have it any other way. The professional-personal relationship with his writer-director-photographer wife from Germany is “really, really good,” Bingham said. His songwriting projects involve a feature film Axster is working on, along with a Janis Joplin biopic and The Bridge, an FX television series that premieres July 10.
“There’s nobody that I trust more than her and kinda vice versa,” he added. “We work well together and it’s nice getting to be together on the road and not being apart for so long.”
A couple for about six years, Bingham said their shared touring life has been almost as long. At the top of his American horror stories is a drive back from a festival near Yosemite when he smoked the brakes of his van with an overloaded trailer all the way down a steep straightaway, necessitating a side trip into a gravel pit.
He played so many dives, that it’s impossible to recall “which one would take the cake” as the worst, yet there remains an endearing appreciation for many of them.
“It’s funny, sometimes the littlest, rattiest bars can be the most fun,” Bingham said. “I really miss playing some of those little places and still would like to get back into them. Sometimes the big shows that are all fancy, those can be kinda the worst just as far as the vibe goes.”
Prefacing his disdain for a onetime next-door neighbor with “I don’t really like to kinda talk bad about any place,” the former Texan isn’t so OK with Oklahoma.
“It’s kind of a desolate place right smack dab in the middle of the country,” he said. “We’ve had some really good shows there, obviously, but I don’t know; maybe growing up and traveling through there, just kinda sometimes the vibe through the middle of the country gets a little bit different.”
To steer clear of any negativity, Bingham heads for the hills, where he hikes, fishes and goes camping. And although the California beaches lead to a few surfing safaris, that cowboy upside to a horseman who enjoys the ride still exists.
Just because he looks the part, though, don’t mistake him for something he isn’t. Bingham has no complaints about Crazy Heart and the award-winning song he cowrote with T Bone Burnett that put him on the map, but sometimes he feels like a weary kind of guy.
“It feels like it was a long time ago,” Bingham said of his date with a gold statue for a song that Jeff Bridges made famous in his role as Bad Blake. “All the stuff happened so fast. And it was such a surreal experience for me. It was just kinda like one big party that lasted a few months and then it was over and then it was back in the van and playing shows and writing songs and just back to everyday life.”
That’s where Bingham found curious looky-loos often confusing him with Bridges’ character.
“Yeah, you’ll have fans come out to shows and the only thing they know about you is that song. They think just because you wear a cowboy hat, you must be a country musician, so they get a little freaked out when they hear some of the other stuff. (laughs) Kind of a bit of a rude awakening for some folks.
“For the most part, it’s been really cool. It definitely got our music out to a lot of people that hadn’t heard us before and if that song kinda turned some people on to some of our other stuff and they like that as well, that’s all for the better. … I feel really lucky that I got to have that experience. Shit, just to be able to play music everyday and make a living from it, it’s not a bad job to have. I can’t complain at all.”
Axster Bingham Records was formed after various managers and labels attempted to market him as a country singer.
“It was a bit of a battle at the start just to kinda try and keep my distance and hold my ground and just stick to what I was doing,” Bingham said. “I’m really influenced by a lot of different kinds of music and I like a lot of different kinds of things. I just want to be kinda free to experiment and keep learning new stuff. I feel like I’ve got a lot to learn. … Playing electric guitar brings a whole other element to things.”
Crediting former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford, who produced Bingham’s first two albums, for getting him to go electric, the 2010 Americana Music Association’s artist of the year took his twang into the future with 2012’s Tomorrowland.
“A lot of it was I just wanted to have a lot of fun playing the songs live,” he said, willing to work on the instrument to keep delivering kick-ass rockers such as “Beg for Broken Legs” and “Guess Who’s Knocking.”
“The last record I did, Junky Star, was really stripped down and acoustic,” Bingham offered. “A lot of the songs, they were just a bit of bummer to play live every night. You walk out, you get in a really good mood and I was having a lot of fun and then all of a sudden, you’ve got to play all these fucking sad songs and you’re like, ‘Damn, we got to cheer up a little bit.’ ”
Bingham punctuated the sentence with a joyful noise somewhere between cackle and wheeze emanating from a throat that sounded in dire need of a lozenge.
So listen up the next time he crosses your path. That scream you hear just might be Bingham thinking out loud.
Ryan Bingham and his band — Evan Weatherford (guitars), Isaac Carpenter (drums) and Shawn Davis (bass) — are scheduled to perform from 5-6:15 p.m. on May 17 on the Letting Go Stage at the 2013 Hangout Festival. Publicity photos by Anna Axster.
Previously in the series: Jason Isbell Opens Up About Alabama, Adulthood and Alcoholism
ALABAMA GETAWAY: RYAN BINGHAM ON THE HANGOUT, COVERS AND MORE
How familiar are you with Gulf Shores?
“We played there a couple of times. Just coming, passing through. Playing for the night and moving on to the next day. I haven’t had a lot of time to really hang out there.”
Do you have any special plans after your performance there? Will you get to spend some more time at the festival?
“I hope we do because I’d really like to stick around and hear some other bands and hang out at the beach because it sounds like a really nice place for a festival and there’s a ton of great bands playing.”
Who would you like to see perform there?
“I’d really like to see Tom Petty. I’ve never had a chance to see him play live. I’m not sure if we’re playing the same day or not but I’d like to see that.” (Petty and the Heartbreakers perform May 18, the day Bingham is scheduled to play in Atlanta.)
What can Hangout listeners expect from your set at the festival?
“It’s gonna be loud and mostly electric. I’ve been trying to mix up some songs from all four records and just kinda having some fun with it. We’re definitely gonna be bringing the electric guitars out and playing some of the louder, rowdier songs.”
Do you have a favorite musician from Alabama?
“Gosh, there are just so many. Maybe more recently, maybe the Drive-By Truckers.” (Co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were raised in the Muscle Shoals region).
What’s your favorite song to cover?
“Recently, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ by David Bowie.”
(Bingham has shot a series of bootleg videos, which he chooses among requests from his Twitter followers, and his latest is the Bowie song.)