Ryan Bingham was born in New Mexico, grew up in West Texas, went to high school in Houston, went to college in the Texas Hill Country, and rode bulls in Laredo during a stint on the rodeo circuit.
So it makes sense that American Love Song, Bingham’s latest record, is a Texas music album.
“That’s what we were going for,” Bingham said. “I moved around a lot as a kid, especially in Texas. Musically, in West Texas I was listening to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, then in Houston, it was Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. In Laredo, mariachi music, and Texas Tornados.
“When I called Charlie, I said I want to make a country blues record,” he said. “I think it really is something I’ve been moving to in my music. It feels like my soul resonates in that place.”
“Charlie” would be Charlie Sexton, the acclaimed Austin guitarist & longtime Bob Dylan sideman who Bingham tapped to produce what is both is the most personal and, at the same time, most political album in Bingham’s 12-year career.
That career began after his stint riding and playing guitar on the Texas/northern Mexico rodeo circuit and the formation of his band, the Dead Horses. Signed to Lost Highway Records, Bingham released his debut, Mescalito, in 2007 and Roadhouse Sun two years later.
Then came Crazy Heart. Bingham performed two songs on the soundtrack of the movie that starred Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out country singer and played a small role in the picture. One of those songs, “The Weary Kind,” which Bingham co-wrote, was the 2009 movie’s theme song.
Early the next year, “The Weary Kind’ won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song and the Grammy for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture along with being named Song of the Year at the Americana Music Association awards.
“Personally, it didn’t have that much impact on me,” Bingham said of winning the Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy. “I still feel like I’m the same person I was before it happened. I feel lucky. It gives you a chance to play music to more people. The folks that discovered me through that song, I feel fortunate to have had that experience, that exposure. But still, I’m the same old kid from West Texas.”
Two studio and one live album later, Bingham decided to tell the story of that West Texas kid in his songs on American Love Story.
“It really started over the past two years,” he said. “I started playing these acoustic shows, me and a guitar. I started telling stories about the songs and where they came from– I’d never done that before. I started writing some of those things down, about where I grew up, what I did, what I learned and when you starting writing them down, you remember more things.”
“I’ve really tied it to the past, autobiographical things,” he said. “But I’ve been trying to write things that aren’t all about me, songs about political, social, economic things.”
That combination, Bingham said, has led to some pretty involved conversations. At times, that talk is about the music itself, like the Rolling Stones rock n’ roll of “Pontiac,” the Hill Country “Got Damn Blues”, or one of the aching ballads.
Other times, it digs into Bingham’s past, taking off from the album’s autobiographical opener “Jingle and Go”– and sometimes it goes to his views on President Donald Trump.
“It’s been a tough record to talk about because a lot of the songs are pretty layered,” Bingham said. “It’s personal, but it’s also about current events. Over the years, I’ve gotten away from writing about myself all the time. It’s a personal story, but it’s also about what people are thinking and feeling.”
The latter, Bingham said, is why he’s written the social and political songs on the album– which aren’t polemic anthems.
“From the songwriting standpoint, it all kind of goes back to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bill Withers. They were a real influence when it comes down to the political stuff, being able to take those subjects and write about them without alienating people,” Bingham said. “Songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” and “Lean On Me,” they have profound things they say, but we sang them in school as kids.”
So do songwriters have an obligation to write and perform cultural/political songs?
“I do for myself,” Bingham said. “I’ve got two small kids. They’re one and three. I remember how important it was for me when I was a kid and I heard those kind of things. I don’t want my kids to grow up and ask me ‘Daddy, what did you say?’ or ‘Why didn’t you say anything?’”
Bingham is now taking American Love Song, “The Weary Kind”, and the rest of his music on the road.
“We’ve been playing some of them [American Love Song songs] live and fitting them in with the older stuff,” Bingham said. “The songs are a lot of fun to play live and they mean something to me as well. When you’re playing, it has to mean something, at least for me. It’s going to be a good time.”