We caught up with New Mexico born and West Texas raised Ryan Bingham at the Sasquatch! Music Festival after his terrific set on the main stage. He played in the midst of a typical Pacific Northwest downpour — one of those that’s not quite Noah’s flood but a pain in the ass all the same. I had seen Bingham play a week earlier at Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where the near-perfect weather found a mostly southern crowd responding to the raucous, roadhouse rock Bingham brought that day. His rain-soaked Sasquatch! performance was scheduled earlier in the day, factors that resulted in a smaller audience, but those in attendance were fortunate enough to see one of the Festival’s best sets.
He stands out in an odd way; Bingham is an unassuming and relatively normal looking guy in the middle of a room full of people trying to look important. He’s lanky and rail thin – maybe carrying a buck fifty on his 6′ frame, topped with a beard, an everpresent and infectious smile, and slightly shaggy hair. Even his presence indicates the lack of importance he puts upon the accolades he’s earned. Rather, he’s driven by insatiable desire to do what he does regardless of how many are in attendance.
The thin and weathered guy that rocks his audience into submission is the owner of an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe for his tune “The Weary Kind” from the 2009 movie “Crazy Heart,” (plus an “Artist of the Year” award from The Americana Music Association). Despite those awards, his humility continues unabated: perhaps because this is a guy doing not only what he loves but also what he has to do. One can only hope that Bingham will maintain this attitude as he builds what is likely to be a massive career.
Weeping Elvis: That was a kick-ass set today — the weather wasn’t great and the crowd much further away than at Hangout, but musically and emotionally it just felt so together…how do you deal with these kind of differing conditions — does it have any impact on you and the music?
Ryan Bingham: “Eh, you never know, festival conditions are a lot different deal and of course you never get a soundcheck so you just get up there and play whether it’s rainin’ or sunshinin’. Also at festivals there’s people who come to see so many different bands and they may’ve never seen you before so, I dunno…it’s always different for me so you just get up there and bang it out.
So much has been said about your voice — adjectives like smoky, grizzled, raspy — I called it “nicotine-stained” when discussing your Hangout set. Whatever you call it, it’s an incrediblely passionate sound…did you work for that?
(laughs) I really just think it comes from NOT knowing how to sing. When I first started playing I was just goin’ with some buddies and playing at rodeos, writing songs in the back of a pick-up truck…we might play at a party afterwards or go to a bar to play where there was no PA. These places were pretty rough — “divey,” shithole bars — people didn’t go there to listen to music, they went there to get drunk and fucked up. So it really came from screamin’ over guitars and not knowin’ how to sing and just really kind of yellin’ to get heard. A friend said to me once ‘You’re not really singin’ you’re just screaming,’ and I’m like, ‘Hey, I can’t hear anything; I’m just trying to sing loud and get heard.’
Plus those places are full of smoke from floor to ceiling and we were drinkin’ every night — I think it just gradually formed over time. All that combined with being a big fan of people like Howlin’ Wolf and Toy Caldwell from The Marshall Tucker Band. I was lucky when I was young, I was livin’ with an uncle who had all the Marshall Tucker Band’s records so I was listening to all that along with singers like George Thorogood and Howlin’ Wolf, ya know, guys that had that growl. I think when I was younger I tried to sound like those guys — but it just developed over time. But really I think it came from not knowing how to sing correctly and blowin’ my voice out a lot.
You brought up some of your influences and you hail from West Texas. There’s an obvious great lineage of great singer-songwriters that you are now a part of: Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen, etc. How do you see yourself fitting into that lineage of great artists?
I never really felt like I fit in anywhere musically or otherwise…when I was a kid we moved around SO much and my dad was a bit of an outlaw and always out of a job. I don’t think we lived in any place for more than two years my whole life…just livin’ out of cardboard boxes all the time. When you’re a kid and you’re movin’ around it’s always new people all the time and new schools and you’re just kinda friends with the people that are nice to you…you don’t have enough time to fit in with a crowd. I was always like, hey, I’m just lookin’ for some friends…I don’t give a fuck who you are or what kind of crowd you’re in or whatever like that. We were always livin’ on the poorer side of town anyway and I had friends that were from all different walks of life but I’ve always been sort of a loner and stuck to my own so it’s the same musically. I’ve definitely been inspired by people like Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely, Guy Clark, Terry Allen and the whole Texas lineage, but it’s really hard for me to fit into any kind of crowd. I’m not saying I deserve it or I don’t deserve it but it’s just part of my upbringing that seems to keep going around.
So that loner feeling you’ve had over the years about all aspects of your life truly goes into your music.
Well, yeah that’s what the writing has always been about…it’s been sort of a therapeutic thing for me you know…that’s the whole reason I started writing songs was to get things off my chest — it was a way for me, ya know? I was out on my own since I was 16 or 17…my parents were all fucked up and gone and I never met a whole lot of people I could really talk to about real shit…you know the shit that was REALLY going on and even if I did, with the kind of areas I grew up in, most people just ignored those kinds of problems that we all had. But people don’t wanna acknowledge their own problems, either, so you would never have them give you the time of day and say “Hey, let’s talk about this.” It was always just like ahhh walk it off…get over it and walk it off. Songwriting was always the way to get that shit off my chest…all the shit I couldn’t talk about in conversation I could put into a song. Songwriting for me is like a journal about life.
You could define your music in so many ways…rock, country, Americana, etc. You’ve said you never felt that you fit in personally anywhere but how do you feel your music or your style is defined or fits into a particular style? If you had to fill in the blank with a musical style, what would you say Ryan Bingham is…?
For me it’s just folk music — I don’t know if that’s what you would really call it but that’s what it is for me. I play acoustic guitar when I’m at home and that’s how I write songs. You start with a note or a chord and that sets the mood for the whole song for me. It depends on whatever kind of mood you’re in — if I’m dark I may start a song in A minor and that’s a whole different ballgame of mood from say a song written in G or an open key.
[I have a brief “Spinal Tap moment” as I remember Derek Smalls talking of a certain key being the saddest of all].
The key of a song can set up the emotion for whatever is gonna come — for whatever mood you’re in. You just play that one note or chord and oh man, that says it all. It’s just an emotion and a story and then you can play whatever the fuck you want and put whatever instruments on it you want. If you use banjos and fiddles then it’s a bluegrass song, you can call up your buddies and say hey let’s get on the Marshall stacks and Les Pauls and it’s rock and roll or you decide you wanna use a squeeze box and some other Mexican instrument and call it Mariachi.
So you don’t seem to feel bound by any sort of instrumentation? I was listening to the first track on Tomorrowland (“Beg For Broken Legs”) and there was that cool slightly eastern sounding string line.
Yeah, that happened when I called up a fiddle player friend of mine from Lubbock and I wanted him to hear that song. I didn’t really hear any fiddle on it but he was such a good player and had such a good vibe that I wanted him to just play some stuff. He had just been to Tunisia and was telling me about playing with some guys there and just from him telling me that I played a lick on the guitar and he picked up on the fiddle and we built that whole thing.
What would be your thoughts about someone labeling your music as ‘mainstream country?’
You know, I’m from West Texas and I’m really rooted in country music — I grew up on Waylon and Willie — but these days with country music it seems so vain and egotistical. And, it’s a sad thing to say that I don’t want to be associated with it but it’s true in the big picture. It seems like you become the sticker on the side of a bass boat or an advertisement for NASCAR. You end up playin’ these songs about tractors and fuckin’ trucks and big tittied fuckin’ redneck girls and you’ve got a Budweiser banner behind you.
There’s a lot of great writers in Nashville and there’s some beautiful country music being played but I guess my problem is with the way it’s marketed. All of that has just never been who I am. If I have an option of doing that or doing something different I’m gonna do something different. Listening to Terry Allen really got me to think outside the box. He, Joe Ely and Robert Earl, I think…I don’t think, I KNOW they feel the same way about it. It’s so easy for the fanbase to see you associated with that [country music] and put you in a box and not let you out of it. But you can’t really complain about it you just gotta go on and do what you do.
Well how does a boy from West Texas with your background go from holding a guitar and a microphone in a redneck bar to holding an Oscar? How did you feel about that?
That [recording music for “Crazy Heart”] was a very surreal experience for me. I met the director and he gave me the script and that character of Blake (played by Jeff Bridges) was very much like my father so I wrote that song about my father — my dad was that guy in the movie and all of his friends were that guy. I read that script and saw all the characters in it and I was like, “Hey, I grew up around you fuckers all my life,” so that shit came out real quick. But I just feel really lucky about that and to be here and to do what I’m doing.
You can catch Ryan Bingham on tour this summer, including dates with Willie Nelson at his “Fourth of July Picnic” and with Bob Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket on the Americanarama Festival of Music.