Ryan Bingham’s tried on plenty of hats over the years, from bull-riding rodeo kid to day laborer and troubadour by night, recording artist on a label roster that boasted Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams, and owner of a Golden Globe, Grammy and Oscar for “The Weary Kind” from the 2009 film, Crazy Heart.
On the cover of his independent fifth album, Fear and Saturday Night, Bingham’s hat is tilted back just enough to reveal a look of satisfaction on his face. It’s the first time the New Mexico-born, California-based singer-songwriter has made eye contact in one of his cover photos. No coincidence that he’s also gone to greater lengths than ever before to let himself be seen in the songs he writes.
“When I was younger, I think that was something I had to go through and become comfortable with it,” Bingham says. “I just feel like I’m at a point in my life where I’m a lot more comfortable wearing it on my sleeve a little more.”
CMT Edge: For this album, you holed up by yourself and stayed put to write songs. What do you think it brought out in your songwriting?
Bingham: You know, I’ve always had to be by myself writing songs. I kinda have to get away from distractions and all that stuff, preferably in some desolate place, you know? I think that’s the only way to tap into what I’m really feeling.
This time, you didn’t have to find a place to be alone on the road. You were stationary.
Maybe I just learned from the past. I was like, “This time around I want to really try to find a place I can go hide out in and get away for a little while.” It was pretty nice.
Which song came first?
“Nobody Knows My Trouble,” the first song on the album, was the first song I wrote.
From what I understand, “Broken Heart Tattoos” is a new song you wrote speaking to a child you haven’t even had yet. You’ve talked about the difficult life you had with your parents growing up. How did you find yourself imagining such a different parental relationship?
I guess it started with my wife and I talking about having kids. That’s when I started thinking about it, I guess, and thinking about how I was raised. Like, “Shit, what would I be like as a parent? What would I have to say?” … I’m hoping that I know some things that you shouldn’t do. (laughs) I might not know the right things to do, but hopefully I know what not to do.
People have talked about how your singing adds heft to your songs – you’re singing about being weathered by life and sounding like it. Who was the first singer you remember believing not just because of what they sang but how?
I think it had to have been a lot of those older blues singers. I remember Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell and some of those old recordings that were probably recorded out of the trunk of a Cadillac in a cotton field back in the day. Just hearing some of those songs and hearing that emotion. I don’t know. Just the authenticity of it. …
I don’t know if [the sound of my voice] was something to do with these bars that I learned to play and sing in. All those little dive bars that were real smoky and rowdy. People didn’t necessarily go there to hear music, you know? They went there to get drunk and fight. So a lot of times when you’re playing, you’re just yelling and hollering and trying to get your voice over the loudness of the crowd.
You used the term “authenticity.” Bob Dylan and Tom Waits sounded grizzled long before they were old enough to be grizzled. It wasn’t so much about who they really were as what they wanted to project, and they’ve since grown into those voices. Do you identify with that at all?
Yeah, I do in a way. When I started, I was really trying to learn how to sing. I didn’t know how to sing at all. I had a guitar and I knew three or four chords on it, and I was trying to figure out how to get some songs across. I almost feel like part of it was kind of a path of least resistance as well. I had to utilize the things that I could work with.
Even listening to guys like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, it was so much more about the lyrics and not having the most beautiful voice and hitting all these different notes. Telling the story, you could just speak the words and not necessarily sing. … Every different gig I played was just trial and error, kind of kept the things that worked and left behind the stuff that didn’t.
How do you feel like Texas’ performing songwriter tradition has shaped you?
There were so many places to play and people were really supportive — supportive in the sense that they didn’t cut you any slack. They’d let you get up there and play a couple of songs. They would be like, “All right, next time come back and tune your guitar.” They’d give good, supportive criticism. And they gave you the opportunity to really cut your teeth. They gave me the chance to play and practice.
Did you try to find a foothold in the Texas songwriter circuit after you started competing in rodeos but before you signed with Lost Highway?
Yeah. I think I [was playing] around New Braunfels around 2002, 2001, something like that. I was still rodeoing and working a day job during the week and playing open mics and things like that. I didn’t really feel like I was good enough or established. I was still really learning how to play.
The idea of doing it for a living or trying to get a foothold anywhere hadn’t really — I don’t know if I was that far along yet. I was just happy to go play my three songs at the open mic night. … Then I ended up going over to France for a bit and working in a Wild West show.
I think I saw some footage of you playing in France.
It’s a long story, but I got over there to work in that show and some turn of events happened and I didn’t end up getting that job. … I was looking for a way to make some money, so during the day I would go into Paris and play in the parks and in the subway stations and try to make a little money for about a month before I actually got the job in the show. …
That was a big turning point for me, thinking, “You know, maybe if I keep this up I can at least make enough money to put food on the table and get a roof over my head.” That was when I really made a decision to keep doing it.
You’ve gone through several phases in your career since then. This is the second album you’ve put out on the indie label you and your wife started. She handles the management responsibilities, in addition to being a filmmaker herself. How does all that work?
It works great for us. We started doing all the management stuff ourselves a while back, then it kinda became a natural progression. It wasn’t something that was just an overnight decision. … I can’t really take any credit for the business of it. Anna really runs the management company and she runs the label. I’m pretty much just writing song and getting out on the road and playing.