Note: since I don't really blog, I would like to post the stories I write for Local iQ to DCF. If that is not kosher with this community (I'm pretty green about this kind of thing), I am happy to not post and rather read all of your fine blogs. I just felt the need to exchange. —KH
By Kevin Hopper
Hobbs native Ryan Bingham’s road to success has been less gravelly than his unmistakable voice, but a lesson to bear nonetheless The story of Ryan Bingham’s rise to success is an increasingly rare one due to the fact major labels aren’t exactly handing out record contracts like Halloween candy the way they used to. His story is also one that might prove disheartening to musicians who have been scraping by for decades trying to make it in the music biz. And finally, in the world of country and western music, Bingham’s story is one that Nashville could certainly dream up, but never quite fulfill in the modern day country-scape.
The Hobbs, N.M.-born Bingham spent his teenage years trying to find work as a ranch hand in and around West Texas. Around the same time, he competed in the rodeo circuit, often entertaining friends after rodeo shows and sleeping in his truck afterwards. Bingham says he learned how to play the guitar around age 17 from his neighbor, who taught him his first song, a mariachi.
Much of the songwriter’s musical point of reference came from his uncle, who owned a Texas roadhouse called The Halfway Bar and a jukebox that fancied Bob Wills, Bob Dylan and Marshall Tucker. However, it was at a Stephensville, Texas, barroom where Bingham happened upon a weekly residency, which led to the practice of recording and releasing his music independently.
One of those indie recordings captured the attention of a rep from Lost Highway Records, who subsequently signed Bingham and released his debut, Mescalito, in 2007. Somewhat prophetically, the record opens with the song “Southside of Heaven,” containing the lyric, “I’ve been a desperado in West Texas for so long/Lord I need a change.” It wouldn’t be long before change arrived swiftly in Bingham’s career. That ascent has yet to slow its pace.
Bingham’s sui generis is his voice, a gruff and gravelly instrument that defies the singer’s 29 years. His music draws heavily from a traditional country and western, poor man’s blues aesthetic reminiscent of everyone from Steve Earle to Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zant to Billy Joe Shaver and (with outstretched arms) Elliott Smith and Leonard Cohen. His birthplace is Hobbs to be sure, but his voice, heart, soul and home sweet home is 99 percent Texas two-lane gravel road.
But back to Bingham’s meteoric rise to success, and the reason every unrealized musician should simultaneously be peeved and wisely take note. Following Mescalito, Bingham and Lost Highway released the delightfully sincere Roadhouse Sun, which peaked at No. 17 on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart. Soon after, Bingham’s discernible songwriting talents were enlisted by producer and Hollywood A-list music supervisor T-Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) for the New Mexico-shot Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out country and western has-been relegated to gigs in bowling alleys and dive bars — places familiar to Bingham and his band mates.
“Traveling around a lot, you see people from all different walks of life,” Bingham told National Public Radio in 2010 of his post-Crazy Heart release, Junky Star (2010). “Especially in the early morning hours, you see and meet a lot of characters that you wouldn’t usually meet ... I guess in some way or another, that could have easily been myself or some of the guys in the band.”
Bingham’s “The Weary Kind,” which was the theme song for Crazy Heart, ended up winning multiple awards (a Golden Globe and an Oscar for “Best Original Song,” among many others). More importantly, that particular song encapsulated a distinctly lonely spirit long since forgotten and eschewed by the country music elite. In that world, Bingham remains an enigma, a product that defies marketing. Another way to phrase that? The music of Ryan Bingham is earnest. That earnestness, which has most recently manifested itself in his latest studio recording, Tomorrowland, is exactly the lesson every struggling musician should carefully take note.
Bingham’s headlong rise to stardom in an otherwise disavowing industry such as Nashville has much to do with circumstance, but more to do with the songwriter’s genuine folksy nature. Bingham has proven to be a great and still unrealized American folk songwriter facing a world of opportunity in a very rewarding, albeit incestuous industry. He also claims a history as a hardworking cow puncher from Hobbs. Methinks the latter quality, regardless of accolade, supersedes everything by American folk artist standards. If more true listeners lived their lives inside a Bingham song, the better theirs and everyone else’s lives might be.