All Ryan Bingham ever wanted to be was a cowboy. His family ranched in Hobbs, New Mexico and his uncle rode bulls professionally. As a kid, Ryan entered junior rodeos, participating in breakaway roping and riding steers.
“I looked up to my uncle and dad and grandfather and wanted to be like them,” he told Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on a recent visit to The Buddy & Jim Show on SiriusXM Outlaw Country.
But Bingham, whose Fear and Saturday Night was one of last year’s best albums, found that music was tugging at him. He kept bringing his guitar to the rodeos he’d attend on weekends.
“We’d make up songs going down the highway when you’re in the middle of nowhere and can’t get a radio station,” he recalled. “We’d just get out the guitar and just make up these little songs. These little one-liners for thirty seconds.”
Bingham’s dad chased oil field work moving the family from city to city in Texas. By the time Ryan was sixteen and the family settled in the border town of Laredo, he took with him a guitar that his mother bought for his sixteenth birthday. Although taken by Bob Wills, Guy Clark, Joe Ely and Terry Allen, he didn’t start playing until a year later. He was inspired by a next door neighbor who sat on his porch playing old mariachi songs. Bingham would go over and listen to him play all the time. One day he got his courage up, brought his guitar and asked him to show him a few chords. The neighbor played “La Malaguena” for him and taught him a new part every day.
“I came back all week until I learned the parts,” he recounted. “But that was the only song I knew and I just got so sick of playing it. I went out and got a book of guitar chords and taught myself a few chords, like one or two chord progressions and making up tunes about rodeos.” Bingham turned twenty and soon found himself using songs to vent and get things off his chest about how he was feeling. Friends started asking him to play songs and soon the bars were calling.
It took Bingham a few more years to make his first album Mescalito. He was twenty-six by then and beating up the roadhouses, as he put it, driving around in a van and not doing much. Then something happened that changed his life. He met film director Peter Cooper and producer T-Bone Burnett. They were making a movie with Jeff Bridges starring as a down and out country music singer. The film was called Crazy Heart. Burnett took him to lunch, handed him the script and said, “Read it and let me know if you’re inspired.”
Bingham went out on the road and was seeing cornfields for days out in the Midwest. One day, he pulled his guitar out in the back of the van and came up with a song called “The Weary Kind.” Soon he put together a demo and when he got home to Los Angeles called the director. “Are you in L.A.?” Cooper asked. “We’re all at T-Bone’s house. Why don’t you bring it over?”
Bingham remembers the imposing Burnett answering the door (“all eight foot and all”) and coming in to see Jeff Bridges and Buddy Miller sitting inside. Burnett put on the stereo and then asked Bingham to play it live. After he heard it, Burnett said “I think that’ll work.”
For Miller, the song got to the heart of the matter of both the character and movie. The critics agreed and in 2010, Bingham collected a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. It was also named Song of The Year by the Americana Music Association.
“Coming off the road out of a fifteen-passenger van, it happened so fast it was like somebody pushed the ejection button,” he said of the overnight success. “I felt like I was sitting on the couch with all this stuff going on. It was like I was watching a TV show.”
Today, Bingham resides in Topanga Canyon, the storied musical community between Malibu and Santa Monica. He made Fear and Saturday Night in less than a week with producer Jim Scott. Scott turned a warehouse in Santa Clarita into a studio where Bingham says he been collecting things for thirty years. Bingham also had band member Jed Hughes leave his studio behind in Koreatown in downtown Los Angeles and put his gear in Bingham’s barn. “I didn’t know he was going to show up with a truck,” Bingham laughs. Hughes is from Australia and attended the same music college in Texas as Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
For Fear and Saturday Night, Bingham and his band tracked it live while Scott mixed it as they played. One of the songs Bingham recorded is the gorgeously beautiful “Broken-Hearted Tattoos,” written for his first child who is now six months old.
“I just felt like I was hanging out with a buddy,” Bingham says of making the album.
“The trick,” Miller said of producing, “is to make you feel like you’re not making a record.”
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