By Michael Devers

(LSM Aug/Sept 2010/vol. 3 – Issue 5)

When Ryan Bingham first hit Hollywood several years ago, his wildest fantasies of success did not include red carpets, press junkets, and Oscar night. Triumphing over Sir Paul McCartney and U2 for a Golden Globe did not appear on Bingham’s to-do list, either. His immediate concern (along with drummer Matthew Smith) upon arriving in Tinsel Town was finding the next meal and a safe place to sleep, or at least a safe place to park their van while they slept in it.

The Academy Award nomination and subsequent win for “The Weary Kind” from the film Crazy Heart landed Bingham on every conceivable talk show on television, from The Late Show with David Letterman (his second appearance there) to daytime femme-fest, The View. (If a few years ago you had predicted Bingham would be discussing his film work with Whoopi Goldberg, please drop us a line and tell us which stock you think will be hot in 2012.)

His shelf now heavy with hardware, Bingham surges into the second half of 2010 with Junky Star, his third release for Nashville-based Lost Highway Records due out on Sept. 7. The album finds T Bone Burnett reprising his producer role with Bingham (Burnett served as producer for all of the music on Crazy Heart and also received co-writing credit for the award-winning song).

Recorded in only three days, Bingham and Burnett (along with the Dead Horses — Smith on drums, Corby Schaub on guitar and mandolin, and Elijah Ford on bass and keys) revisit the stripped-down sound of “Weary Kind” for the bulk of Junky Star. It’s a move that held the potential to sound contrived or forced, but with Bingham’s songcraft and delivery, along with Burnett’s sure hand guiding the way, the album is another significant step in Bingham’s continuing evolution. In fact, in a three-song section of the album — from the title track to “Depression” to “Hallelujah” — Bingham delivers arguably the best 15 minutes of his career.

Indeed, as good as both Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun were as collections of songs, Junky Star stands out as Bingham and the Dead Horses first cohesive piece of art. The songs fit together and supplement each other so masterfully, it now seems like it’s only a matter of time now before Bingham does Junky Star one better and produces this generation’s Red Headed Stranger.

Fittingly, Bingham and the Dead Horses will spend most of the rest of 2010 opening for Willie Nelson himself. On the downside, Bingham’s growing popularity has made it harder and harder to catch the band in the roadhouses where its live show is at its peak; theaters, amphitheaters and festivals are the only shows currently on the schedule.

Along with roadhouses, another venue where you probably won’t be hearing a lot of Bingham — at least not in unedited form — is mainstream radio. His notorious self-destructive streak has reared its head again, because for the second album in a row, he drops a radio-repelling f-bomb in the middle of the most commercial track on the record. On Roadhouse Sun, it was on “Dylan’s Hard Rain”; on Junky Star, it pops up in “Depression.” One can only imagine the groans that elicited from the Lost Highway radio promotion team. But then again, chasing commercial success has never been a Bingham concern.

“None of us need a hit single or to be famous rock stars,” Bingham says. “Just to be able to make a living playing music and not having to work an eight-to-five job digging holes makes me feel fortunate enough.”