by: Thomas D. Mooney
Who cares about 16 and 17 seeds, right? Wrong. Songs that are unknown, overlooked, and forgotten are just as important and key to a songwriter’s catalog as their most popular songs. Realistically though, will any of these eight songs make a deep run in this tournament? Well. They’ll all be going against 1 seeds the next two days. But who knows, they very could pull an upset. We’ll see.
More than anything, talking about “The Highway,” “Bandito,” “Big Country Sky,” “Tears,” “Roadhouse Gypsy,” “Freight Train,” “Bad Case of Gone,” and “Hurricane” will hopefully serve as a discovery for those unfamiliar with pre-Mescalito era Bingham. (Hell, maybe this even begins a movement and prompts Bingham to release a box set of “unreleased” material. We can dream, right?)
With these eight songs, you genuinely hear a different Bingham. It’s a less-grizzled voice. They’re all deeply rooted in Texas as well. They sound more like Texas (I don’t mean Texas Country either. There is a difference) than anything else he’s done since.
Note: Just to avoid any confusion on how Artist Song Tournaments are done, they’re ranked/seeded by what we deem as most popular (and most known) to least popular (and least known). That’s the driving force in how songs get seeded. When it comes to bracket match-ups though, they are decided on which song we think is better (Based on lyrics, melody, instrumentation, and overall greatness). If we didn’t do it this way, there really wouldn’t be a point in doing the tournament. This is the most vital and important information you must understand to fully comprehend ASTs.
The rest of the week’s schedule looks like this as well:
Wednesday: Sangre de Christo First Round
Thursday: Devil’s Backbone First Round
Friday: Cowboys in Mexico First Round
*Each title is linked to the corresponding song.
Sangre de Cristo
“The Highway,” in one song, really summarizes what early Bingham sang about and was. He was out there singing songs about what he knew and what he related to for that specific amount of time: lonesome country roads, hardworking cowboys, whiskey and Texas. That’s the bubble. Does the modern Bingham relate to those things now? Well, I can’t speak for him, but I’d tend to lean towards the answer being yes. But it’s just a fraction of what does and who he is these days.
“I can’t recall where I’m where I’m from
But I think, it’s where them cowboys are born.”
The Highway kind. Simply put. There’s really no frills and about as direct as possible. Like “Big Country Sky” below, it has a soothing, somber approach. He’s calm, cool, and really sure of himself. He goes back to the best line of the song twice, which in my opinion shows just how important of a line it is. “My mama said, when I was born, Look in your eyes, I could tell you was gonna run.” He was built to roam, born to run.
“Bandito” is one of the finest examples of Mexican and Spanish influence that shows up on Bingham songs from time to time. Like so many before and after, Bingham loves singing songs about outlaws and the sprawling, open West. This one originates closer to the deserts near the border. Lyrically, there’s a few lines that capture and spark specific images, but overall, could be said was a little too green. His songwriting is a work in progress at this time.
Musically, “Bandito” does something experimental. It starts off as one song and morphs into something distinctly different at around 40 seconds in before morphing back out with out a minute left. They’re like bookends for the meat of the song. More than anything, they help build an atmosphere for the lyrics and story to be present in. But for “Bandito’s” case though, it’s just not enough to get past “The Highway.”
Winner: The Highway
Hippies in Austin
“They call Montana the land of big sky. Never seen further than a Texas mile.” Now this is how people should be singing about Texas; not about their Lonestars beers and Lone Star flags. Every time I hear this song, it reminds me of novel All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. They both really explore elements of isolation. Bingham, while never coming out and saying it, does plenty of hinting on how small you are when compared to that “Big Country Sky.” It’s most evident in the lines “I you want to grow wings and fly. Well, never touch down. Be a certified member of the lost and never found.” There’s obviously plenty of cowboy elements that are found throughout the song as well–a sign of who Bingham was at the time. That was his world (“Never seen further than a Texas mile” again).
Something that mustn’t be overlooked either on “Big Country Sky” is how slow it is. It’s not a rambler by any means. It’s calming, especially the smooth fiddle. The music by itself is more than enough to transport you to any Texas summer sunset. You can see for miles and it takes whatever hustle and bustle may be clogging you down. You don’t even realize how short it actually is. The song comes in at a little under three minutes.
“Tears” is by no means a horrible song either. And I’d dare to say that pitted against any of the other six, it’d have probably come out on top. It just gets the unlucky “Big Country Sky” pre-first round match-up. What I find most charming about “Tears” is how young Bingham really is in his songwriting. Would he have said any of those things had it been 2010? Probably not. But he’s obviously still “learning” how to write.
Something that some could view as “undeveloped songwriting” is his use of “And I” throughout the song. Is it a crutch? I wouldn’t go that far but could certainly see the case. Rather, I think it’s an interesting device he used as part of songwriting experimenting. The use of repetition in this case cements the notion that he–and he alone–will always be there. What Bingham says he’ll do aren’t these ridiculous generalizations that often pop up in “love” songs either. Let’s be honest, he could have said he’d love you farther than a Texas mile and people would have eaten that shit up. What’s he do though? He talks about things (Giving his last sip of water, walk across the desert, give the last breath of air, etc) that are replenishing. He is hyperbolic here and there, but they’re so infused with realistic promises, they don’t even feel that way.
Winner: Big Country Sky
A battle royale of two Wishbone Saloon songs. This is also where you can see Bingham really cutting his teeth and doing something that nearly every songwriter tackles early on in their writing career: songs about trains and songs about rough bars. Can it be cliché? Well yes. Does that mean they’re shitty songs? Of course not.
I’m truly a sucker for train songs. They’re ultimately about America and the American spirit. “Freight Train” even feels as though it was written on a train. It has that chugging along rhythm. It never leaves. There’s plenty of accenting fiddle and a few other guitar parts, but the driving force, that simple acoustic rhythm guitar.
Once again, Bingham write about what he knows. He knows traveling can be hard on the body and mind (“and this highway, well it’s wearing down my soul”). It’s not all seriousness though–that’s a good thing. There’s plenty of subtle humor throughout. For instance, in the second verse, Bingham talks about eighteen-wheelers never offering him rides. He also goes off in the direction of treating the train like a woman almost. “Won’t you please come back? I’ll be good to you next time. Won’t you please come back? I won’t drink me no more wine.” How many times have you heard someone say that to a girlfriend or significant other? And it’s all because he wants a ride instead of going down these dirt roads and hard highways.
“I’ve seen cocaine make a man’s eyes grow wild. While I rolled him cigarettes and made him homemade wine.” You find three of the main vices you’ll find in any dive bar. Once again though, I’m not sure how serious Bingham genuinely is on “Roadhouse Gypsy.” There’s plenty of lines that could sing either way. Personally, I find it more of a good time than anything else–especially within the context of Wishbone Saloon.
“I remember laying down with the roadhouse girls.
I was just a little boy trying to keep my feet warm.
And the cowboys tearing down the bar at night.
Had a pistol in my boot, had to shoot out the light.”
The beginning of the song establishes him as being young, (he mentions 10 years-old). The comical nature of these contradictions set up visualizations. And it even seems that the entire song is a giant contradiction. Presented with all these rambling, tempting vices, but just wanting to stay with your feet on solid ground. Bingham even mentions feet throughout the song. Look above and you see two temptations and quickly two suggestive mentionings of feet/boots. Let’s stay grounded. Hell, we don’t know if Bingham was being intentional with these lines and words, but it certainly feels that way. For this, “Roadhouse Gyspy” squeaks by “Freight Train.”
Winner: Roadhouse Gypsy
Cowboys in Mexico
These two actually may be my favorite two songs within the eight presented here in the 16. versus 17. match-ups. “Bad Case of Gone” almost feels like it’s not even finished. But there’s just something about it being just Bingham on acoustic guitar that makes it even better than if it was full band. Bingham hasn’t developed the full “Steve Earle’s dad” voice here either. You can tell it’s early on.
Of course, the majority know of Bingham’s rodeo-cowboying days before going fully into music. “Bad Case of Gone” could very well be the last in a dying breed of songs: rodeo songs. It’s Bingham’s attempt at what Garth Brooks and George Strait made famous during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Think “Rodeo” by Brooks and “Amarillo by Morning” by Strait specifically. Those songs were about choosing the rodeo lifestyle over significant others. And more often than not, them choosing someone else over you and your rodeo addiction.
Where have all those songs gone by the way? They’re almost non-existent these days. Anyways, Bingham’s “Bad Case of Gone” may be the most palpable song he’s ever written–including everything to date. It’s filled with genuine lines that Bingham’s either felt or seen firsthand. “Then your broke and your headed home. Call your house, she don’t answer the phone. You reach the door and a note says, I just can’t love a cowboy no more” are some of the best, most simple lines Bingham’s ever uttered. He’s unfiltered with emotion on this one–even when he has some of his most cliché as well (“I hit the highway like a bat out of Hell. Spinning tires, this El Camino Real.”) I think even he’d admit to those images being often overused by songwriters. What other songwriters don’t do though is make up for them later on in the song.
On the other side of the spectrum–musically that is–“Hurricane” is one of early Bingham’s most developed songs. It’s filled with fiddle that jumps around and some guitar that is really a step above most of the early Bingham simpler melodies. And let’s not forget about those drums (Side note: Could you see Travis Stearns of Dirty River Boys pounding a cajon to this?)
Here again, Bingham explores the idea of giving inanimate objects human qualities. Here “the ocean took my hand. She pulled me to her belly” before ultimately being rescued by a mermaid. Even here, you can’t take the cowboy out of the ocean; he rides that hurricane for more than eight seconds. Not to beat a dead horse (pun not intended), while these songs are certainly special and have hints at what kind of talent Bingham had for songwriting, you’re able to tell why they didn’t get re-recorded for Mescalito or Roadhouse Sun. For example, off Wishbone Saloon, “Southside of Heaven” and “Long Way From Georgia” were re-recorded. If you look at Dead Horses, just about everything other than “Big Country Sky” was recut.
Winner: Bad Case of Gone