By Michael Devers
It is undoubtedly premature and perhaps even silly to compare Ryan Bingham to Woody Guthrie at this stage of his career. Woody Guthrie is an American legend, having influenced artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Earle and having written one of the most memorable songs in our nation’s history. Ryan Bingham has previously released three independent discs (mostly out of print) and has just put out his major label debut, Mescalito, and is unknown to 99% of the US population.
But the similarities between the two at the same stage are striking. Woody grew up with a fractured and difficult home life in Okemah, Okla., and didn’t learn to play guitar until he moved to the Texas panhandle town of Pampa. After limited success in Texas, he relocated to Los Angeles where people began to take notice of him and his honest songs documenting the times and the life of the working people (with an occasional cowboy song in the mix). Woody was a hard traveler with a magnetic personality and he was embraced from people of all walks of life almost immediately upon meeting them.
That same kind of instant likability has served Bingham well. He once took a trip with promoter John Dickson to a town in Louisiana where he knew no one, decided to stick around a while, and was leading the town parade one week later. Bingham also faced a difficult upbringing full of uncertainty, bouncing between West Texas and Hobbs, N.M. He learned to play guitar and write songs while on the rodeo circuit with the many nights spent sleeping in the back of pickup trucks in a dusty rodeo arena adding a gravel to his voice. He left the rodeo circuit to pursue music full-time and after kicking around Texas for a few years, he decided it was time for a change. He and bandmate Matt Smith left for Los Angeles where the circumstances that led him to becoming label mates with Willie Nelson and that “other” Ryan (Adams) were almost immediately set in motion. With Mescalito featuring such stellar songs as “Bread & Water,” “Dollar A Day,” and “Hard Times,” it’s clear that Bingham, just like Woody, has a definite gift for translating the struggle of average working people.
Of course, plenty of other artists have started off with great potential only to end badly so only time will tell if Bingham can build on the promise he’s shown and someday earn the Guthrie comparisons. For now a great debut record and an eagerness to drive 16 hours for $200 and a chance to promote that record is a strong beginning. LoneStarMusic sat down with Bingham shortly before the album was released to talk about the new record, how he got there, and about a very fateful coin flip that occurred as the 2006 MusicFest drew to a close.
A lot has changed for you guys since you and Matt flipped that coin at Steamboat back in ’06.
Definitely. We decided we could be broke in Texas or we could be broke in New York City or we could be broke in California or Montana or wherever. We were already in Colorado so we said, “Shit, let’s go to Canada.” But then we thought it’s too cold, let’s at least go somewhere where it’s warm, so we went to California.
How long were you out there?
We went back and forth quite a bit. The first time we went out there we were there for a couple of months and then we came back to Texas for a month and then we went back. We just kept going back and forth. One time we went out there and had only planned on being there for a week but our transmission went out. It took us about three or four months to make enough money to get back home to Texas.
Did you have a place there?
No, we just set out. I called a friend of mine on the way out there, we were about in Phoenix, and he asked what we were doing. We told him, “We’re headin’ to California,” and he said, “No shit, I’m heading that way too.” He’s a big hot rod guy, he collects hot rods and cars and there’s some buddies of his out there that do the same thing and they were having a big car show in Pomona. He asked if we had a gig for the next night and we told him no and he said, “Why don’t you come and play at the hot rod festival.” So the first day we get in town we had a gig and the guy throwing the festival let us stay at his house for a couple of days. Then I had a friend in Paris, France that knew a lady in California who’s husband was starting a web site called Tag World and he suggested I get a CD to them. So I called her up and she said, “Yeah come on up to the house,” and they lived out in Malibu and we took her the CD and got to know her a little bit and told her what we were doing and she said we could stay there for a few days. So we stayed there for a little bit and she took us to some party in Beverly Hills and we met John Gries, the actor from Napoleon Dynamite [he played Uncle Rico], and we told him we were just out in California looking for gigs. He told us his buddy booked a bar called the Mint and he could maybe get us a gig there and if we wanted to crash on his couch we were welcome to come over. So between Gries’ and the lady and her husband in Malibu and some other places we kind of floated around.
That’s quite a setup. Anywhere else?
Another friend of mine, a guy named Boyd Elder out in Marfa, knew this bar called the King King and he gave me this girl’s phone number that booked the place. I called her up and told her a guy named Boyd Elder said to call and see if you could give us a gig. She said “Yeah, come in Sunday night at one in the morning.” So we went at it was just her and the bartender there, wasn’t anyone else. But Marc Ford was actually staying at her house up the block. We got up and played two or three songs and she got on the phone and called Marc and he came down to the King King and he said, “Let’s go into the studio and record some music.” So the first week we were there we met John Gries and Marc Ford and all these people that have helped us out the whole way.
Do you have any place you call home now?
Yeah, I met my girlfriend Anna out there. She came into a bar we were playing at one night and came up and asked if she could use one of my songs in a short film she was making. We got to be real good friends and were hanging out a lot and then we got to be more than friends. I just moved into her place out in California and it’s actually the first address I’ve had in three years.
I hear that while you were in California you met another guy who has helped you out after you flipped him the bird following a gig.
Actually a friend of mine from a while back named Barry Tubb, he’s an actor and …
He’s a Snyder boy.
Yeah. He’s played Jasper in Lonesome Dove and Wolfman in Top Gun. He’s been in lots of different movies. He’s from Snyder and my family’s from Hobbs right across the border so he actually knew my uncle and my family from back when they were rodeoing. I told him we were heading out there and he made a few phone calls. He knew a guy who worked for CAA and they sent an agent out to one of our shows and he thought it was great and that we had something going on, but he didn’t really work on the music side of things, just the movie side of it, but he still spread the word. We played these shows and didn’t make a dime in these little bitty bars but all of these people were coming out — agents and movie stars — it kind of seemed there was a buzz going around.
I’m sure you guys stood out from the average L.A. bar band.
A lot of the bands while we were out there were these polished pop-rock bands. Glitter and gold all that shit. And we were just a drummer and a guitar and straight-up roadhouse music. Drink some beer and have some fun and not all the high-falutin’ chi-chi crap. I think everybody just had a lot of fun.
There was a lot of time, and also some false starts, between Wishbone Saloon and Mescalito. Did you ever get discouraged?
Oh yeah. That’s why I named that record Dead Horses. Sometimes it just seems like you’re spinning your wheels in the same spot. That’s one of the main reasons we left Texas for a while. Just to go somewhere and make something happen.
You’ve done a lot of living for someone who’s 25.
Yeah, I’ve been a lot of places, I guess.
It doesn’t seem that way to you?
It does every now and then when I look back. I’ll see some friends I haven’t seen in a long time and I’ll remember a story or they’ll remind me of something and I’m thinking that was just a few years ago and I’ve been all over the place.
How has growing up in West Texas influenced your writing?
It’s so desolate out there, there’s a lot of room for imagination, you know? It’s like Terry Allen says, if you stand flat-footed in West Texas you can see for over a hundred miles. If you stand on top of a tuna fish can you can see the back of your head.
There are a lot of singers in Texas that like to play up the whole cowboy thing, but I’ve heard that you’re actually pretty good on a bull.
I’ve ridden a few in my day, I guess.
That was part of your travels early in life, too, right?
That’s what I always wanted to do was be a cowboy. My uncle rode bulls and my grandfathers were all ranchers. I never thought I’d ever play music. It was never a plan or a goal. For me it was rodeoing. That lifestyle of being on the road and going to rodeos, sleeping in your truck and dusty rodeo arenas — when music came along and the lifestyle was so similar I thought, “Shit, I can do this.” “What do you mean drive all night to play a gig? I just drove all night to get my teeth knocked out by a bull.”
One of the tracks on Mescalito you sing partly in Spanish, or “Cowboy Spanish” as a friend of mine likes to call it.
Yeah, it’s Spanglish. My dad growing up on the ranch spoke fluent Spanish. He learned how to speak Spanish before he learned how to speak English working as a kid. So he always talked broken Spanish a little bit as I was growing up. When I was about 16 I moved to Laredo. I remember going into a gas station and the attendant didn’t speak English and I thought, “Man I’m going to have to learn how to speak Spanish to live down here.” I picked up a lot down there and got to where I could really understand a lot and speak it kind of half-assed.
A lot of the new tracks on Mescalito were recorded in a big open space and it was all live. You realize a lot of musicians would think that’s absolutely insane.
There had to be bleed on every track. Is that something you were going for?
Definitely. From the get-go Marc Ford, who produced it, is really into doing things the old school way. A lot of stuff I really like from the ’60s and ’70s was recorded that way. That sound and the warmth of those old records, I think that’s what fits what we’re doing more than anything else.
To me the spontaneity really comes through on those recordings.
It’s a lot more real and you can feel it. Instead of playing to a digital signal with a pair of headphones on when you can see everybody and feel everybody it’s more real.
The vocals were cut the same way I take it.
Played live and sang it live right there on the same take. The engineer in that studio, Anthony Arvizu, he and Marc worked really good at knowing what sounds they wanted to get and knowing how to mic things in certain ways. For example they had a grand piano and they opened it up and took an electric guitar amp, a Fender amp, and plugged my acoustic into it, turned it upside down and laid it on the grand piano’s strings. They had mics in corners of the room and placed pieces of wood to reflect the sound just right.
That’s a real lost art.
A lot of guys don’t know how to do it.
You mentioned earlier a friend of yours in Paris, France. How did you two hook up?
I was working for a rodeo Company in Del Rio called Bad Company Rodeo. I was kind of rodeoing, but really playing music more. I’d kind of go along and work in the rodeos helping them out and then I’d play a gig at the end for the cowboys. I didn’t really have too many songs I’d written. I was still kind of learning, busting my chops, and I was still pretty green. And my friend Barry Tubb, he was actually one of the first guys to go work in this Wild West show in Paris, 15 years ago or more. He still had some contacts over there and knew some people. We were talking one day and he asked if I ever thought about going to Europe. And I said I’d go in a heartbeat. He told me there’s this Wild West show and since you can ride horses maybe you can get a job over there. He made a call and got me hooked up with one of his friends working in the show and sent a videotape of me riding horses and they said, “Yeah, come on over,” so Barry bought me a one-way ticket to Paris. He said the show paid really good and they’d put me up with a place to live and whenever I was ready to come home, just come on home.
Did you even think twice about it when he bought you a one-way ticket?
Hell no, I didn’t even care. I got over there and there was a guy working in the show who was going to quit and I was going to take his spot. And while I was on my way over there the guy decided to stay. So I showed up and they said, “Sorry man, this guy’s staying,” and they didn’t have a spot for me.
That’s got to be a big “Oh, Shit!” moment.
And I’d flown over there with only a hundred bucks in my pocket. I’d had a three or four hour layover in London. It was morning over there, but I was still on night time, so I went to the bar and started drinking beer. I made the mistake of exchanging my money for pounds. So with the exchange rate I went from a hundred to about fifty bucks, and I had all of these coins and I didn’t realize how much a pound was worth, so after I had a few beers I had all of this “change” on the table and I left it all for a tip. So I get to France and exchange my money there and I had like five bucks.
That’s a good start.
I’d been up all night, it’s the middle of October in Paris, it’s freezing cold, my bag had busted on the plane or when they searched it so it’s all duct taped together, half of my clothes are hanging out of it and then the handle broke, so I had to lug this big fuckin’ bag around and my guitar and nobody came to pick me up at the airport. I sat there for like eight hours and tried to figure out what to do. I couldn’t get the pay phone to work, but I didn’t know anyone’s number over there anyway. The only number I had was Barry’s over in Texas and I couldn’t get a hold of him. Finally I went outside and there was a shuttle bus to Disneyland. So I got on it and we get to Disneyland and it’s this huge park and I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t even know where to start. So I’m just standing there in the rain, freezing and tired, hungover, rain dripping off the brim of my hat and there’s thousands of people everywhere. All I see is this big line of people going into the park and there was security with dogs and all of this shit and I don’t even have enough money to get into the park to get into the show to find someone to talk to. So I just dropped my shit down and sat on the ground and I was fucked.
You can’t make up stories like that.
So I’m sitting there and I look up and the show’s right there. It says “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” So I decided the hell with it, I’m going in. I get in there and Sean Howard is the only name I knew so I’m asking everyone, “Does anyone know Sean Howard?” Someone went and got him and they took me upstairs and gave me the bad news about how they couldn’t give me the job. This guy Sean said, “Well man, that sucks. I wish I could do something for you, but me and my old lady are having lots of problems so you can’t stay with us.” I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me, right?” and I just took off walking. I was in the park walking around and this guy came up and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and it was a Navajo Indian with the face paint on and leathers and I thought I was in a dream or something. I was wondering if someone slipped me some bad acid on the plane. I’m in the rain in Disneyland talking to an Indian and I’m dressed up like a cowboy. He introduced himself and said he had heard what had happened and thought it was bullshit and offered me a place to stay until I could figure out what I wanted to do. I said “Hell yes.”
That was one helpful Navajo.
When I got there I crashed and slept for close to two days. When I woke up there were all of these cowboys and Indians listening to my music, drinking, and laughing at me. It turns out that when I was rodeoing in Texas I knew this Indian guy named Todd Rangell. He was a bronc rider from New Mexico. A year before I went to Paris he went over there and worked in the Wild West show. He had these home-recorded demos that I’d made. Lucas, the Indian I was staying with, was his cousin, so Todd had lived with Lucas and Lucas never did say anything to me until I woke up. He was messing with me. He said, “I’ve been listening to your music for two years dude. My cousin told me all about you. You can stay here as long as you want.” So I did. They’d get up and go work in the show and I’d go into Paris and play in the subway, in Irish Pubs, wherever I could make some change.
Is that your career highlight so far, playing in the subway in Paris?
It sucked ass.