Ryan Bingham - Street-smart from the rodeo
The music business has a nasty habit of lifting people up and then dumping them right on their backsides. So maybe the best preparation for dealing with the music business is another business that lifts people up and dumps them on their backsides, like riding bulls in rodeos.
Ryan Bingham landed on his posterior more than a few times when he was competing in the junior bull ride circuit around south-east New Mexico and Texas and says that may account for his refusal to get carried away now that his second career, as a singer-songwriter, is reaping the rewards for all the work he’s put into it.
This year began with Bingham carrying off an Oscar for his song The Weary Kind from the soundtrack to Crazy Heart and has continued with him winning the Song of the Year award, for the same song, and the Artist of the Year title at the Americana Awards in Nashville. Now his third album, Junky Star, which was produced by T Bone Burnett, Bingham’s collaborator on the Crazy Heart soundtrack, is picking up the kind of reviews and sales that point to further success.
“Riding bulls might well be the ideal preparation for the music business,” says Bingham, who began on the rodeo circuit when he was eleven years old. “It certainly teaches you not to have too much pride.”
Raised on the New Mexico cattle ranch that his great grandfather founded and passed down through the family, Bingham watched his uncle competing in bull rides and decided that he’d like to give it a try.
“The junior rodeos are kind of the equivalent of little league baseball,” he says. “You’re up against kids your own age and there’s a camaraderie about it because you see the same kids at different events. It gets a whole lot more competitive when you move up into the seniors, though, because some of these guys have been riding for years and there’s quite a lot of money going around. I was quite lucky, as regards injuries, compared to some other guys. I broke a few ribs and loosened a few teeth, nothing too serious, but it does get quite intense.”
It wasn’t the intensity of the competition that lured him away from rodeos, however. It was hearing the great Texas songwriters Townes Van Zandt, Terry Allen and Joe Ely at the age of seventeen.
“I realised that if I was going to keep riding in rodeos I’d have to keep on a day job because the rodeos are only on at weekends,” he says. “So I did some labouring work but then, when I fell in love with music, the guitar felt a whole lot better than digging holes for a living.”
Hearing Van Zandt took him into another world. This was music that he didn’t hear on the radio and he was struck by Van Zandt’s ability to say a lot in a few words.
“He really seemed to express himself and get stuff off his chest but at the same time his lyrics were so poetic,” says Bingham. “I wasn’t inspired to sit down with a sheaf of paper and start writing songs or anything like that, but I’d go off into my room and strum my guitar and gradually songs started to come.”
His songwriting technique hasn’t changed now that he’s writing and performing professionally. The tone of the lyrics is guided by the lightness or darkness of the chord progressions he works up. But the content of his more recent songs is markedly different from his early work.
“I was only eighteen or nineteen when I wrote the songs on my first album and they were pretty much all personal stuff,” he says. “But lately I’ve realised that maybe people don’t want to hear all about me and what’s going on in my life. I think as you get older you look around the world more and I see things as I travel around America especially that I feel I have to comment on.”
Contrary to any impressions its title might give, Junky Star isn’t about drugs.
“I’ve always been passionate about the situation of homeless people and kids having to survive on the streets,” he says. “So some of the songs come from that, from looking at what people need to do to survive. Rather than being about drugs or stars who are protected from what’s going on out on the streets, it’s about finding the beauty in what at first might appear to be rough around the edges. I can see that beauty in someone on the street, like some guy just raving, and wonder what this guy has been through to get to that place.”
The album was recorded in just three days, mainly because Burnett, whose myriad past successes include Robert Plant & Alison Krauss’s Raisin’ Sand album and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack, was so focused and Burnett and his band, The Dead Horses, went into the studio with the songs thoroughly prepared.
“T Bone creates this atmosphere where he just wants to get the best out of you,” says Bingham. “We hardly made any changes to the songs once we got into the studio and we had no distractions and didn’t waste any time. So what comes out at the end of the recording is a true picture of where we are as a band and what people can expect to hear when they come along to a gig.”
The gigs are coming thick and fast in the wake of Junky Star’s release and as he travels, Bingham can let his next batch of songs, for a film he and his wife are currently working on, percolate. Film work hadn’t been a consideration until the invitation to submit songs for The Weary Kind appeared completely out of the blue and the whole experience, including walking up to receive his Oscar, was, he says in his understated way, “kind of overwhelming.”
As for the doors that his success with The Weary Kind might open, he doesn’t want to tempt fate.
“I never saw myself working in movies and it was hard to take it all in, especially because it was so unexpected,” he says. “But yes, I’m interested in doing more and let’s just say that I’ve been getting a few scripts sent to me.”
From The Herald, November 16, 2010.