By Richard Skanse
(LSM Jan/Feb 2015/vol 8 – issue 1)
Ryan Bingham has a pretty good track record when it comes to making strong first impressions. Take, for example, the time about a decade ago when legendary Texas songwriter (and world-renowned visual artist) Terry Allen happened upon Bingham playing for tips at a bar in Marfa, and invited the young, unknown songwriter back to the anniversary party Allen and his wife were hosting at a hotel down the street. Before the night was over, Bingham was swapping songs with Allen, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, and David Byrne — and according to both Allen and Ely, blowing every one of ’em away.
Already vetted and enthusiastically endorsed by the best of the best, Bingham’s rise was just beginning. His major-label debut, 2007’s Mescalito, made for a powerful first impression, too, more than justifying the heady buzz on the New Mexico-born and Texas-reared drifter with a low rumble of a whiskey-on-the-rocks rasp as cracked and weather-beaten as his lived-in songs about hard traveling, harder times and haunted memories. Three years later, Bingham won his first Grammy — along with matching Academy and Golden Globe Awards — for “The Weary Kind,” his devastatingly poignant theme song for the movie Crazy Heart.
But even now, five years on from winning that Triple Crown and firmly established as one of the most compelling voices of his generation on the Americana landscape, Bingham can still blindside you with the shock of the new. After three highly acclaimed albums for Lost Highway Records, he went indie — and full-bore electric — for 2012’s amp-smoking Tomorrowland. And though the follow-up, Fear and Saturday Night (out Jan. 20, once again on Bingham’s own label), scales the sonic attack back to more familiar stripped-down, mostly acoustic arrangements, many of the songs — most notably the opening “Nobody Knows My Trouble” and the lead single, “Broken Heart Tattoos” — chart bold new lyrical territory for the 33-year-old troubadour. After more than a decade of chronicling his life’s often rough and tumble, torturous journey through songs rife with moody introspection and harrowing intensity, the now happily married (to film and video director Anna Axter) Binham sounds like he’s really starting to get the hang of embracing a genuine sense of domestic bliss. In “Broken Heart Tattoos,” he even muses on the lessons he might one day get to pass on to his hypothetical children.
Of course, fans of Bingham’s more brooding side can rest assured that he hasn’t turned full-on Mr. Happy Go Lucky on them: there’s still just enough fear and loathing on Fear and Saturday Night to revel in for those looking for a shot of Southern Discomfort. But as evidenced by his charming good humor and blinding white smile on display throughout the opening night of his month-long solo acoustic tour in November at a downtown Austin hipster bar called Holy Mountain, Bingham’s high spirits these days are as sincere and authentic as any song he’s ever written. The week after Thanksgiving, we caught up again with Bingham at the tail-end of that tour to get to the heart of Saturday Night and talk about the balance he’s found between singing about the ghosts of his past and his optimistic outlook on his present and future.
Where are you calling from? Are you back home in Los Angeles yet or still on the road?
I’m in San Francisco right now. I’ve got one more show here tomorrow night, and then a show in Los Angeles, and that’ll be it for this round.
How’s this run been for you overall? It’s been a while since you went out solo like this, hasn’t it?
Yeah, it has. And it took me a couple of shows to kind of get back into it, but it’s really been a good tour. The shows have been great and the crowds have been great. So it’s been a lot of fun. I look forward to probably doing some more stuff like this in the future. It’s been a good time.
Have any of the shows really stood out for you?
There’s a couple. Like, Washington, D.C. was a really, really good one, and the show in San Francisco last night was really good as well. There’s been some good ones, man. And there hasn’t really been any bad ones, but those are some of the ones that really stood out for me. But they’ve all been pretty cool. It’s been fun to play a lot of these songs, kind of getting back to the way I wrote them, because I pretty much wrote all of these songs just like that, with just an acoustic guitar. And a lot of times when you get in the studio with a band and all that, a lot of stuff really changes. So it’s been cool to get a chance to kind of get back to the roots and also play some songs that I don’t get a chance to play very much.
I caught the first night of the tour at Holy Mountain in Austin. That was such a small, intimate room — the place was packed, but it really felt like a private, fan-club-only kind of show. I overheard one couple in line telling the doorman, “When we have our drunken accident baby, we’re naming him Bingham!”
[Laughs] Oh no! Don’t do that to the poor kid!
And all through the show, some guy behind me — obviously drunk and having the time of his life — kept shouting out requests for Tomorrowland’s “Guess Who’s Knocking.” And next to me was like this Simpsons “Comic Book Guy” sort of a Ryan Bingham fan, who would hear that and roll his eyes and mutter all sarcastically, “Yeah, like that’s the song we really want to hear …”
I was rooting for the drunk guy to get his wish! Tomorrowland was kind of pitched as your get-your-ya-ya’s-out rock ’n’ roll album, and it certainly sounded like you had a blast making it. But did you end up hearing a lot of grumbling from fans like that about songs like “Guess Who’s Knocking”?
No, not really, man — everybody’s been pretty cool. Austin was one of the more rowdy shows, though, for sure. That venue was a good place, but it was really more of a bar kind of scene, with all the noise outside and the bass from the clubs next door and the cars going by — it was definitely a different kind of environment than a lot of the venues we played. But for the most part everybody’s been pretty cool, and I’ve been free to kind of play whatever songs I felt like playing. And when people want to hear particular tunes, I definitely try my best to do them — but sometimes I just can’t remember the words to all of them! It’s weird. Sometimes I can recall a song and play it through singing it word for word, and 10 minutes later I can’t remember the first word to any of them.
That Austin show was actually the first time I’ve ever seen you perform, or at least from that up close rather than from the back of a festival crowd somewhere. One of the things that really made an impression on me was how clear it was that you were really enjoying the moment. Having only really listened to you on record before that, I went into that show thinking you’d be more of an all-brooding, all-the-time, shoe-gazer type — the kind of performer who talks to the crowd as little as possible apart from maybe mumbling “thanks” every few songs. But you were grinning from ear to ear and joking with the crowd and encouraging participation pretty much the whole show. You even ordered a case of Lone Star to be passed around. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting: You were fun.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess some of the songs … you know, when you write them, it’s like you’re … I’m kind of by myself, kind of going to darker places, you know? But I try to remain optimistic. Because you know you’re going to get out there on the road every night and play them in all these places, so you’ve got to learn to have some fun with it.
That sense of optimism seems to kind of define Fear and Saturday Night as a whole. I mean it’s a far cry from being all “Zippity Do Dah” — it still sounds like a Ryan Bingham record — but it seems like a record made from a really good place in your life.
Yeah, definitely it is. I went through quite a bit of heavy stuff, even from Mescalito on through up till now. But I’ve just kind of come along a long way, and I’ve been really happy in my life … All the stuff that’s been going on, having fun playing music, making changes in my life, trying to make things better … I’ve been in a pretty good spot so far, and having fun with everything, so it’s definitely about being in a lot better place now.
But was that an overall theme that you were consciously aiming for when you were writing these songs?
I don’t know. There’s definitely a better sense of optimism, for sure. I just really wanted to have fun with these songs, and be able to play them acoustically and stripped down, just really let these songs kind of speak for themselves. I wanted something I could look forward to going out on the road and playing every night, because at the end of the day that’s how I make my living. I’ve never been dependent on selling records to make a living; I make my money going out and playing my songs for people. These songs … I don’t know, I write them all from the same place; at the end of the day, you try to go to that place where you find these tunes, and you just try to write about things that you’ve experienced and that you can be honest about — and things that you can sing every night of the week. You can’t expect people to believe what you’re saying if you don’t believe it yourself.
That acoustic, stripped-down approach is the polar opposite of the direction you went in with Tomorrowland.
Yeah. It’s just kind of how I felt when I started it. It was a different approach when I was writing those songs; you know, I kind of went and camped out in the mountains with an acoustic guitar, writing all these songs for Fear and Saturday Night. And when I was writing stuff for Tomorrowland, I wrote all those songs with an electric guitar, kind of experimenting with different amps and things like that. So those songs were written with an electric guitar and really wanting to just experiment with sounds and try some different stuff out. And I was in a lot different headspace and going through a lot of different shit when I was writing that stuff. You just kind of go through things in life … these songs tend to be real personal and about where you are in your life at that moment. Sometimes albums feel like chapters in a book, a journal of where you’ve been living your life. Everyone goes through different phases in their life, and each album kind of reflects that.
Regardless of whether the recording turns out to be more acoustic or electric sonically, do you always go off and isolate yourself somewhere when you start writing a new record?
Yeah I do. I really have to be by myself, try to get somewhere where I can reflect on where I’ve been, what I’ve been through. I’ve got to get somewhere where I feel like I’m on the outside looking in.
Once you’ve found that seclusion, do the songs come pretty quickly to you? How long did it take you to write this album in particular?
It just depends; I don’t really keep track of it. I don’t give myself a deadline or anything, I just try to write when I’m feeling it. I’ve never been very good at sitting down with a pen and paper and trying to churn something out; it just kind of has to come when it comes, and you can’t force that. Sometimes I’ll try to start writing and I’ll get maybe halfway through a song and I’m just not really feeling it, so I just have to put the guitar down and walk away from it and come back to it at another time. Sometimes it’s happening, and sometimes it’s not.
You mentioned earlier about getting back to your roots as a performer, both on this record and on your solo tour. At that Austin show, you played a song in Spanish that you said you learned from an old Mariachi neighbor you had when your family was living in Laredo when you were 17. Did he teach you much on guitar?
No, he just taught me that one song — “La Malagueña.” That was the first song I learned. I’d had a guitar that my mom got me about a year before that, but I didn’t know how to play it. But I’d hear him play that song, and he would show me one little part to the song and tell me to go home and learn it, and then I’d go back a couple days later and he’d show me the next part. We did that for a few weeks until I learned all the parts, and then I could play that whole song. That was the only song I learned, though, because I moved away up to Stephenville and Fort Worth shortly after that. So that one song was all that I really knew how to play for about a year, until I got so sick of playing it that I went and bought a book of guitar chords and started trying to teach myself some other chords, just so I could play something else.
How important was music to you growing up? I know you moved around a lot as a kid, then you left home pretty early and joined the rodeo circuit, so it just doesn’t seem like you ever would have had much time or the luxury to collect and lug around a big record collection in those days.
No. It really wasn’t that important to me. I didn’t play music; I didn’t know anyone who played music. It didn’t become important to me until I learned how to play guitar and started writing songs. But once I did start writing songs, it became this form of therapy for me. I had all of this bottled-up, you know, crazy things going on, stuff that had been happening to me growing up, and all of a sudden I found this release and this way to get this stuff off my chest. And it was just like the greatest thing that I had ever stumbled upon. It was very personal and I was very protective of it. But before that, no, I didn’t have a huge record collection. I was always intrigued and inspired by music, but I was pretty much just at the mercy of whatever the radio stations were playing out in those little West Texas towns, or you know, whatever else was going on. I wasn’t into any scene or any particular thing.
Which leads me to my next question. Two of your earliest and most outspoken supporters were Terry Allen and Joe Ely. In fact I’m pretty sure the first time I ever heard your name was from Terry. You’ve got a very big PR firm (Shore Fire Media) working your records these days, but when it comes to publicists, it’s hard to beat having guys like Terry and Joe in your corner before you’re even on anyone else’s radar …
But what I’ve always wondered is — that night you first met Terry and Joe in Marfa, and ended up swapping songs with them and Butch and Robert Earl and Guy — did you have any idea at the time who any of those guys were? I mean yeah, they’re all pretty famous to those who really follow this kind of music, but they’re not household names when you’re at the mercy of what’s on the radio — even in West Texas. Were you familiar with them at all?
Yeah. You know, I probably knew Guy Clark and Joe Ely more than I did Terry at the time; Terry was newer to me, but I had kind of just gotten turned on to him recently right before I met him. But I knew Joe and Guy Clark and Robert Earl, because I’d heard their music; they were huge influences on me. And then when I first heard one of Terry’s records, I was like, “Holy fuck, who’s this guy?” I was just over the moon about what he was doing. Terry was just so much further out there than anybody else; he just broke down all the barriers and all the rules of anything that I thought. He just really opened my eyes and my ears and changed my whole fucking outlook on the whole thing. That was a huge, huge turning point for me, when I met Terry, in just how I went about everything: not only in music and writing songs, but just in life as well. He definitely changed the game for me.
Do you remember how or where you were first exposed to Ely and Guy Clark, though?
My uncle actually turned me onto those guys. I went to live with my uncle when I was about 12 years old for a couple of years, and he had a bunch of old vinyl records. He had a Joe Ely record and Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt … he had everything from Bob Marley to Bob Dylan. So that was really kind of my introduction to the kind of stuff other than what was played on the radio, that big stack of records that he had. And that was just kind of from me being a kid, being curious … it wasn’t like he went, “You need to listen to this.” I kind of found it on my own. I saw this stack of records in the corner one day, and I just started putting them on myself and checking them out. And that’s really where I started discovering stuff.
When you started writing your own songs, did you have any sort of template you were working off of? I mean in terms of, “I think I can write a song like that guy, or at least I’m going to try …”?
No, I don’t know if I was really trying to write like anybody else. It was almost like I wasn’t even trying to write songs, you know? It was just about saying things out loud for me. I wasn’t very good at playing guitar — I knew like one or two chords. And the songs that I was writing were very minimal and just … it was more about just getting stuff off my chest, and the music kind of brought those emotions and the words out. I mean, I could definitely relate to Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and Terry and Joe and those other guys more than I could some other things I heard, just because they were kind of from where I was from and it seemed like they were writing about where I was living. And so I guess I sort of gravitated toward that style, where it was more about the lyrics than it was about the music sometimes; it was just kind of stripped-down and raw, and that was something that I could kind of do as well. But I wasn’t good enough to where I could listen to their songs and learn them; I didn’t know what they were doing, what chord they were playing on the guitar or piano. So the stuff I was writing was very basic and just kind of minimal stuff.
Fear and Saturday Night is being called your fifth album, but that’s only going back to Mescalito. You actually had two or three CDs that you put out before you got signed to Lost Highway. Do you still feel any kind of attachment to those? Or, now that you’re releasing your records on your own label again, do you ever see yourself reissuing those first independent releases?
Like the demo stuff before Mescalito, is that what you’re asking? Some of those I don’t even have anymore! A lot of that stuff just really felt a lot more like practice to me —like scratch stuff. And it was from a period in my life that I wrote about then that I’m just over now, you know? A lot of songs are just about different times in my life, and they’re really personal, and some of them are really hard to keep singing. They’re about stuff that I’d rather forget than be reminded of every day! So I don’t know, we’ll see; I don’t really have any plans of putting any of that back out now, but you can find it pretty much anywhere these days on the Internet if anybody wants it.
Both in interviews and songs, you’ve alluded to or talked directly about some of those things you went through early on in life that were really hard — including the addictions your parents battled and your family having to move around so much. As tough as that was, do you have any genuinely happy childhood or teenage memories that resonate just as strongly? And if so, where out of all the places you lived — New Mexico, California, South Texas, West Texas — did most of those happier memories happen?
When I was young, where I was born, in Hobbs, N.M. … those younger years were the best. My parents, you know, they were good people — it wasn’t like I was getting abused or anything like that. They were just bad alcoholics and got hooked on drugs, and when I started hitting my teen years it started catching up with them and they really fell apart. But I can remember my mom was just a really witty and funny person, so much fun to be around. And my dad, I looked up to him so much. Really, kind of all I ever wanted to be was like them. So those younger years when I was a kid, those were some pretty good times for sure. And then when I started getting in my teens things started really falling apart. But there were some good times that we had back then.
Looking at your schedule for 2015, I see you’re spending the first part of the New Year in Europe. Very early on in your travels, you went to Paris for a job in a Wild West show at Euro Disney — only to get there and find out that the position wasn’t open anymore. You eventually found your way, obviously, but that first night you barely had a penny to your name and no idea what was going to happen. When you think back on that time, do you shudder, or do you think, “Damn, that was living!”
No man, that was one of the best things that I ever did! Just getting the fuck out of town … it just opened my eyes up to the rest of the world. Paris is such a diverse place culturally; it’s an eye opener. It was very humbling and it was very overwhelming, but it just seemed really good for me at that age to get out and see how other people live in the world. It gives you a better perspective on life, on how not everybody has to live the exact same way, because pretty much all I’d seen before that was like Texas and a little bit of Mexico. So, it was definitely something I’d do over again if I had a chance.
How long were you over there?
I guess I was over there for a few months, and then I came back, but then I went back over there again. So I went back and forth for about a year.
Speaking of life experiences most people will probably never have — can you walk me through what it feels like and what goes through your head when a bull kicks your teeth out?
[Laughs] Oh shit, I don’t know … I really loved riding bulls. I had a blast doing it when I did. I mean, I loved the rodeos and going on the road with my friends, the whole deal. That’s really all I’d ever wanted to do back then. But Robert Earl Keen said it best: He said it’s like riding down the highway at 80 miles an hour and throwing the steering wheel out of the window.
Do you ever get the itch to do it again?
Yeah, sometimes I do. But then I see these guys getting beat up so bad, and I don’t think my body could take it like it used to. I’d just rather watch.