Country Music

Ryan Bingham: "It's Tough to Be That Vulnerable All the Time"

Talking to Ryan Bingham, you get the impression he's just as soon not carry around the official title "Academy Award Winner Ryan Bingham" the rest of his life. One clue is where he keeps the Best Original Song Oscar he and T-Bone Burnett won in 2010 for "The Weary Kind," but we'll get to that a little later.

Written and sung by Bingham, produced and arranged by Burnett, "Weary" summarizes both Jeff Bridges' Oscar-winning role of not-quite-washed-up honky-tonk singer Bad Blake and the (partially Houston-set) film Crazy Heart itself

Raised mostly in West Texas and still only a tender 31 years old, Bingham is already former bull rider, ranch hand and a veteran of rootsy Austin venues where grit and Red Dirt collide like Momo's, the Saxon Pub and the Continental Club. His weatherbeaten, black-and-white country-rock won a deal with Lost Highway, which released the albums Mescalito (2007) and Roadhouse Son (2009).

Then he and Burnett crossed paths, and in the wake of "The Weary Kind," Bingham moved to L.A. but hasn't gone Hollywood.

Instead, he spent the months after he won the Oscar working on Junky Star, his final album for Lost Highway, and touring it for months. Then he turned around and did it again, writing and recording Tomorrowland, his debut on his own label Axter Bingham Records. Half a world away from the ghostly "The Weary Kind," Tomorrowland is a sweeping, stomping album full of electric guitars and boiling-blood lyrics ("Beg for Broken Legs," "Rising of the Ghetto").

A week from Saturday, he headlines the Ziegenbock Festival at Sam Houston Race Park alongside David Nall, Kevin Fowler, Roger Creager, Cody Canada & the Departed, and about two or three dozen others. Rocks Off spoke with Bingham by phone from his L.A. home before he headed out.

Rocks Off: Now that you live in L.A., do you spend much time in Texas anymore?

Ryan Bingham: I do. I've still got some friends back home, and I try to get back there as much as I can.

RO: You told The New York Times recently that Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and The Clash partially inspired Tomorrowland. From one to ten, how big of a Zeppelin fan would you say you are?

RB: Probably a ten.

RO: It certainly sounds like it on some songs.

RB: Yeah, definitely. I had some time off in the past year, and that was really the first time I had an opportunity at home to sit with an electric guitar and pedals and amps and things like that. I really feel like I've got a lot to learn in that department.

I was kind of just going through songs and listening to old records, and his style of playing has always jumped out at me. It's something very unique and special.

RO: How about the Clash? Some of the lyrics seem very Joe Strummer-like, like "Rising of the Ghetto" and "Beg for Broken Legs." What is it that you picked up on?

RB: I don't know. I was really first introduced to them by Joe Ely there in Austin. I was staying with him out there, and he was good friends with those guys and toured with them in the '80s some. I really got into listening to more of their music then.

I don't know if it's something that hit home with me -- growing up I always grew up on the darker sides of towns, not so much anti-establishment or whatever you call it, just being young and trying to grow up through the system.

It wasn't always easy, trying to get the upper hand on your life all the time when you had so many forces against you, it seemed. I don't know, I guess it's just something that kind of resonated with me.

RO: Did you get to know Joe much when you were in Austin?

RB: I did. Joe's one of the guys that really helped me out when I first started playing. I met him around Austin and didn't really have anywhere to stay, and he let me stay out at his place for a while, a place for me to hang my hat for a bit.

He really kind of opened my eyes. I don't know - we didn't really talk about it much, because that's his character and the way he handles himself. He's been playing for a long time, and been down the road, has a lot of experience under his belt. There's little subtle things I tried to notice and learn from him.

RO: He seems real tough, but at the same time real thoughtful. Is that your experience?

RB: Yeah. Definitely. How would I say it? He's definitely experienced the streets in ways and had to grow up tough, but at the same time he's very kind and sincere. He's one of those guys that would give you the shirt off his back.

RO: Any butterflies about jumping to your own label from Lost Highway?

RB: It's not necessarily jumping to the label. It's just anything new -- new record, new tour, you kind of go into the studio and record all these songs. I go in and say all this stuff off my chest and don't ever really worry about consequences or what people are going to think, so when you get a record out and get on the road you're never really sure how people are going to react, if they're going to like it or not.

It's just kind of part of the whole process. There's a little anticipation of going on the road, wearing your heart on your sleeve. It's kind of tough to be that vulnerable all the time.

RO: Where do you keep the Oscar?

RB: I got it in a box in the garage.

Saturday, October 6, at Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Pkwy W. Gates open at noon.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray