by: Thomas D. Mooney
Where does the line between Ryan Bingham the person and Ryan Bingham the mythological songwriter exist? Has he created this mythic persona within his songwriting that’s somehow larger than life or are these songs just Ryan Bingham the person? Are they both?
I’ve been asking myself that the last couple weeks as we’ve been doing this song tournament. At some point, we jokingly created this #DarkBingham persona that lived out in the badlands of Texas who was a Pecos Bill and Townes Van Zandt mixed character. He’s this guy who does work with his hands. Lives in a remote area. Death is often brought up. It’d become a graphic novel written by Cormac McCarthy. Directed by David Fincher or The Coens.
But did we (not just New Slang, but people in general) independently somehow create in our heads this Ryan Bingham alter-ego? All myths originate from fact and always have some form of relevancy no matter how far the truth is stretched.
Obviously with Bingham, what ultimately drives us to flock to his songs is that they’re genuine. They’re set in some form of reality that we don’t see in other “Country-esque” music. Where pop country is dead set in a redneck fantasy Candyland, Bingham’s Mescalito, Roadhouse Sun, Junky Star, and Tomorrowland all come from a place that’s real. They’re real people with real situations. They’re you, me, and the people we’ve known.
And I know, that kind of contradicts my ideas on the mythic Bingham. But really, that’s what makes it accurate. You’re presented with this dusty, lonesome traveling troubadour in Mescalito. His eyes are covered by the shadow of his hat and the first thing you hear him say is directed to the Lord about being put on a southbound train when he dies.
Already, you know this guy isn’t going to be singing about how he’s going to put you in his pick-up truck and show you how fast he can down a six-pack. When he says, “I’ve been a desperado in West Texas for so long, Lord, I need a change,” better fucking believe that I believe it. And you better had to as well. You’re listening to a guy who you believe has lived out in West Texas and has worked out on ranches and ridden enough horses he kind of walks bow-legged.
You believe him when he says “when the day is done, I was born a bad man’s son,” “Well I ain’t gonna stand in line beg for bread off the floor. I ain’t gonna bite my tongue beg for broken legs no more,” or “Washed my hands in the rain and spent my time with the whiskey. I’ll never give up on change or give a damn if you’ll ever miss me.” All those statements become valid in your mind.
It gets to a point in which you’re not even sure you’d want to meet him just because you’ve told yourself he’s this way and don’t want to risk learning he’s not. And obviously
You want to believe Hank Williams was always so lonesome he could cry. You want to believe Waylon Jennings would kick your ass if you were acting out of line. You want to believe Keith Richards could still out-party you today. You get the idea. But still, you don’t want to see them out of those elements, whatever they may be.
Obviously Bingham has a ways to get to get to that level, but he’s certainly getting there.
We were able to catch up with Ryan Bingham earlier this week. Along with Joe Ely and Jason Eady, Bingham will be playing the Kalf Fry tonight. For more information on the Kalf Fry, click here.
New Slang: So I’m not sure how much of our Ryan Bingham Song Tournament, but we’re down to our Final Four: “Southside of Heaven,” “The Weary Kind,” “Hallelujah,” and “Never Far Behind.” Do you think those are your four “best” songs?
Ryan Bingham: I do in a way. They’re definitely up at the top of the list for me.
NS: “Never Far Behind,” if I were to choose was your best, is what I’d choose. I’ve seen in interviews you saying this song was about your parents. Do you feel this is one of those songs that you could’ve only written in the last two years or so? That you had to write in now?
RB: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s been an element of that in a lot of my songs. When I first started writing, I had left home and my parents were pretty fucked up and a lot of writing was just a way of dealing with that. Dealing with growing up and figuring out who I was. It was in a simple way, a kind of therapy and a way to get things off my chest. I think I’d talk about it in songs in a roundabout way, but I think that was the first time I really wrote about it directly. And a whole lot of that record was something I needed to get off my chest, kind of put some things to rest, and to kind of move on with my life. That was definitely a song in which I directly spoke about it and trying to move on.
NS: With this tournament, it feels like I’ve just been listening to only your catalog for like the last two weeks. Been trying to make connections within songs and records. Probably reading too far into some.
NS: Yeah. It can be consuming [laughs]. Anyways, with Mescalito, that record feels so dark and rough. Felt like a lot of those songs, you were coming from a place so isolated and desolate. You were able to really capture that element of being in Texas–the Southwest in general–and being out on the road so well. Do you feel that’s still part of you now? Is that part still in your songwriting even though it was years ago?
RB: Yeah, I do. It always seems when I go to write songs, I always go back to that place. It’s always been kind of the root to everything. When I was writing those songs, I was in my early 20s and learning my way around, learning how to play the guitar, song chords and structures, I was just kind of writing these feelings off my sleeve. But now, i definitely go back to that place. You start there and then you start to consider all the places you’ve gone and the people you’ve met along the way. So I think it starts there, but all these years of traveling along and getting exposed to all these different kinds of things, there’s a lot more that I give consideration to as well, but it’s definitely the root of everything.
NS: Yeah. To me, Junky Star is a place where you consciously challenged yourself as a songwriter. You went more into storyteller mode on a lot of these songs. And not that you weren’t telling stories before, but these felt more like they were coming from a different point of view.
RB: You know I don’t really know if I knew what I was going to do. It seems like I never really sit down and try to formulate a song or map anything out. I probably should. I probably should be a little more diligent on the craft. But, a lot of these just have to come off the top of my head and be randomly creative and spontaneous. I think anytime you write a song, you look at those songs before. You take what you do like about them and you take what you don’t like and move on. You try and experiment or say things differently. Sometimes you’ll say something in a song and record it. Then the next time around you’ll say “I still want to talk about that, but I want to try talking about it in a different way or better way.” So maybe not necessarily challenging myself, but trying to evolve. I think that record too was very dark. I know a lot of people know about the Oscars and all the stuff that was going on, but my father committed suicide at the same time. I was really going through some stuff that a lot of people didn’t see. A lot of stuff was on my mind that wasn’t awards or making a record or anything like that. I was just trying to deal with all of this.
NS: Yeah. It really is a dark record. It also has this timelessness element with it too. A lot of these songs feel like they could’ve been written in the Depression. You see a lot of connections between that era and these Modern Times (Editor’s Note, you can probably see connections between Junky Star and Dylan’s Modern Times as well). It’s really a place in which you do a lot of social commentary. Why do you feel that’s become a huge element in your songwriting?
RB: You know, growing up I moving around a lot, mainly in Texas and New Mexico and stuff like that. I grew up in somewhat a closed-minded environment. Then when I’m getting out, going to Europe, going coast to coast and seeing some things firsthand that I felt that a lot of the things I was taught growing up weren’t really that close to the reality of the situation in the country and in the world. I think finding out some of that stuff firsthand on my own was shocking. I think growing up and being confused about it and angry about it–I don’t know–I think it was just something that was very relevant in my life and something on my mind. Songwriting has always very much been looking around and describing the people around you. To me, it was very much a natural thing to talk about.
NS: Yeah. That’s really one of the major aspects of your songwriting that I connect with. I grew up in West Texas and of course you know, you’re raised in a certain political atmosphere that you don’t necessarily agree with once you’ve grown up some.
NS: Now the most recent song you’ve released has been “Until I’m One With You.” It’s really the most Spanish guitar or Mariachi style of song since “Boracho Station.” i guess how’d you decide to go that direction and how’d it’d become the theme song for The Bridge?
RB: Yeah. I was originally approached by the writers of the show to write a song. They knew I’d lived down in Laredo for several years and kind of grew up in that region in Texas and along the border. So they came to me and gave me the pilot script of the show and I read it and they were telling me about what they were really looking for. So I basically went back to when I lived in Laredo and thought about all the people there, the friends that I had, the situation on the border, and then what I’d read in the script. Just kind of went from there. It was really one of those songs that just happened. It didn’t take me too long to write it. I just kind of sat down with the guitar and it just came about. I really just wanted it to be, just the concept of the bridge between these two nations and how to bring them together, and what better way than to incorporate love in some way. So in my mind, I kind of had this love story between the United States and Mexico where neither one can really do without the other. Then it’s kind of open to love in general.
NS: One of the things that people will generally take with you is your connection to alt. country and folk. And the great singer-songwriters of America–like Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Terry Allen, Joe Ely and the guys from up here. But, something I feel is often overlooked is the rock aspect of your songs. Obviously it’s there on Tomorrowland, but it’s there on those early records too. Especially on Roadhouse Sun–and in particular, when you hear the guitars. How’d you also go in that direction of a songwriter?
RB: When I first started playing, I was self-taught. I was living in Laredo and this guy taught me this Mariachi song. It was the only thing I knew for a couple of years. I moved away and didn’t really have anyone to play with. I didn’t really have many friends who were musicians so I was basically on my own with it. I went out and bought this book of guitar chords because I got so sick and tired of playing that one song [laughs]. But I also wasn’t so musically inclined where I could listen to songs on the radio and have the ability to really learn how to play them. So when I first started playing, it was just me and a guitar playing these little bars and rodeos. It took me so long to get a band together because no body wanted to play with me since I didn’t know anything about music [laughs]. I could play by myself and make up these little two-chord songs, but they didn’t have any kind of structure and they kind of rambled. Musicians really had a hard time playing with me since they really never knew where I was going to go [laughs]. So I really didn’t start playing in a band until I met Paw Paw, who was playing drums, and even then, it was just the two of us. It really wasn’t until Mescalito and we went out on the road with a band. One thing I really learned from Marc Ford when doing those record–he really started teaching me about music and how to play with the band as well. Those first few years playing out on the road with Mescalito, that was such a learning experience on how to play with a band. With each new record, I’d just go in excited about trying and learning new things. And I’d never played electric guitar until I met Marc. He was the first to put an electric guitar in my hands and said, “Go try this out. I think it’ll fit your personality.” It was really just a big learning experience and learning how to play the electric guitar and being inspired by it. Those early years, my biggest influences was definitely guys like Townes and Guy Clark and Terry Allen. These guys who were doing a lot of this solo acoustic stuff because that was stuff I could do. Then later on, playing with a band and playing electric guitar, I came around to thinking maybe I could do this other stuff that I really liked. I’ve always been a huge Rolling Stones fan. Led Zeppelin. It was something I was inspired by, but never really knew I’d have the ability to go in that direction. I just thought let’s just give it a shot. Especially, when you get out on the road and playing live and going to cities and towns where you’ve never played and no one knows who you are or your songs, sometimes it’s hard to walk in with an acoustic guitar and play all these slow ballads for people [laughs]. In order to keep a job and to keep a gig, it was needed. Bas really wanted you to have a full band. I know several times bars wouldn’t even book me unless I had a band. So it was also out of necessity you had to get the guitars out and keep people moving and the beers flowing at the bar, it was almost like a means to survival.
NS: Yeah. It’s also about that time where people are going to want you to just go on acoustic tours and want you up there by yourself at theaters and stuff.
RB: It is. It’s been interesting to me. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of stuff. Sometimes you don’t have the opportunities to play in some really nice sit down theaters where people want to sit and listen to the songs. So it’s kind of been this whole transition. You know, I went north to get south in a way [laughs]. As Terry Allen would say. I’ve been trying to mix it up in the shows more as well. I’ve finally gotten to an understanding where I don’t have to play the rock and roll stuff all day to keep people’s attention. People want to hear the acoustic stuff too. It’s been nice to be able to do that.
NS: This last record is on your own record label. Do you have any thoughts or aspirations to going into do any record producing one day?
RB: Yeah, I’d like to–well, I’m just starting off with my own records now. Not sure about doing other people’s records just yet. I think I’ve still got a lot to learn. This last record, it was all just a new thing. Different musicians and I wanted to try some new stuff and really experiment with the electric guitar. It was really just a big experiment seeing what I could do and to learn about some stuff. Sometimes I think about these older producers like T-Bone Burnett and guys like that. You know, they all had to start out somewhere as well. I’m in my early 30s now and thought, why not give it a shot? You’ve got to really pay your dues in that aspect as well. These next two or three records, I may not hit it on the mark and will probably make a lot of mistakes, but hopefully the fourth and fifth record I’ll start getting things dialed in and know how I want to do it. I just figure I may as well start now [laughs].