Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On the road with a song for you

I threaten to write a blog on this topic every so often, but generally I get sidetracked, or maybe more accurately I chicken out of writing it. I typically write blogs imagining that I'm writing for my friends to read, and quite literally, this blog is one that my friends could hold against me -- one that could lead them to de-friend me, and not just on facebook.

Of course the subject I am talking about is Ryan Bingham. If you don't know him, he's a Lost Highway Records recording artist who recently won a Golden Globe for a song he wrote for the movie Crazy Heart. On account of that win, he's likely to get an Oscar nomination at the very least, if not the award as well.

Bingham started out on the Texas country scene a number of years back, making the rounds as a singer/songwriter well before had an album to push. (See this article from Hilly Country Explore April 2008, pages 15 & 16) I believe actually helped him release his first LP Dead Horses, which is now out of print, largely because a number of the songs were re-recorded for his Lost Highway debut Mescalito. As this article in Lone Star Music Magazine details, there was a short span a few years ago where Bingham went from not being able to get a gig in Austin to playing Coachella and The Tonight's Show not long after. There are a number of live recordings of Bingham available on the internets outside of his two studio LPs, most of which are poor quality, but one semi-obscure recording of his comes from a show he did in Paris with dobro and steel player Stephane Beaussart. It's a pretty worthwhile listen.

It won't make sense to the typical reader why I would ever have anything against Ryan Bingham. I don't even know the exact reason myself. Let me try to explain. I think the short version is the fact that various press releases have hyped up his time as a bull rider and his hardscrabble West Texas roots. Technically, he is from Hobbs, NM, although he lived around various parts of Texas growing up, and I'm sure he rodeoed around the area plenty as well, although I have no idea for how long. So combine that with his former affiliation with Texas Country music, a song lyric saying "I've been a desperado in West Texas for so long Lord I need a change," getting attention from big names in music so early in his career, and his relatively meteoric rise to fame, and yeah, that's where I think some of the initial resentment stemmed from. As well as I can understand it myself, I think this whole situation is tied to my growing up in West Texas and wanting to be able to decide who the "real" West Texans are. Irrational, I know, but what can I say?

Before his second album, Roadhouse Sun, it was relatively easy to ignore Bingham. He wrote "Southside of Heaven," a catchy song that was pretty widely popular in Americana music terms. The song was even featured on an episode of ER last year, believe it or not, not as background music, but actually played by one of the characters in the show. Essentially, it is the perfect song to have on a first album, because it just keeps spreading to new listeners because people love it, and before you know it, you've got the perfect fan base built up and primed for a follow-up album.

As fate would have it, Ryan Bingham is a record company's dream. He's just plain marketable. I am starting to learn not to hold that against him, because I think he's just as genuine as any performer is. It's an unsettling thought at times, but that's why they are called performers. No matter how much we want to believe our favorite musicians are completely genuine, every artist is playing a part in some manner. Some are just better at making it "feel" genuine. In all honesty, I think Ryan Bingham has actually lived a lot of the stuff he talks about in his songs more than most songwriters. Perhaps I've been put off by him because he might actually be the real deal, if such a thing exists. In my defense, I present exhibit A, an LA Times article, where they try to throw every roadhouse/outlaw cliché in the book at him in a three paragraph review of Roadhouse Sun. Check out his press page and you'll find 50 more articles just like that one.

Amazingly, Bingham has found success on the old music model -- the one we really don't see that much anymore. That is, A&R rep sees artist with potential, signs artist, develops artist, and artist gets popular. These days you practically have to sell 100,000 records out of your trunk before a label will look at you. Nobody gets signed without a following these days. Except Ryan Bingham, it would seem. Not that he's going platinum, but did I mention he won a Golden Globe?

What has led me to write this blog really has nothing to do with the movie Crazy Heart, or his Golden Globe for "Weary Kind." It's actually sad to me that he missed the acceptance of his award because he was at the bar. I'm happy to see a guy from Hobbs, NM, making a name for himself. What finally led me to sit down and write about him is the fact that there are a number of songs off of Roadhouse Sun that I simply cannot get out of my head.

There. I said it. No, it's not my favorite album of 2009. It's kind of all over the place really. The sounds range from the Byrds to Ryan Adams to Arcade Fire (seriously) to various other mixes of folk and guitar rock. I guess part of that is what happens when you've got a label paying for studio time and the other part is what you get when you mix a New Mexico singer/songwriter with a producer who is a former guitarist from the Black Crowes. So as far as having a groundbreaking sound, the album is fairly middle-of-the-road. What keeps me coming back though is the songs.

Turns out that "Southside of Heaven" wasn't a fluke. Roadhouse Sun has a number of songs that I have found myself humming over and over for the past few months. Specifically, "Dylan's Hard Rain" and "Country Roads" are damn catchy, and they have literally been like a little voice on my shoulder telling me to give this guy another chance, or maybe rather to give him a first chance. Besides those standouts, a number of other songs are solid listens, including "Tell My Mother I Miss Her So," "Day Is Done," and "Change Is." Others are forgettable, but that is to be expected.

If you're not convinced yet, then I understand. That's where I was for years. However, if you listen to the songs with an open mind, you just might get dragged over into the camp of his supporters, and as it turns out, you'll probably find me in that camp when you get there. Looks like I'm about to go pony up $10 plus another $10 in popcorn to go see Crazy Heart this weekend. Judge me if you want. De-friend me if you must, but just know that you might be missing out.

(Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses photo courtesy of Lost Highway Records)

edit: an additional good article about Bingham can be found at Carnage & Culture, which I believe was originally an L.A. Times article.


derek said...

This took guts. We're all proud of you.

Anonymous said...

Unless I missed it, I didn't anywhere in your commentary where it said you'd seen Bingham live. You need to, as I think that will convince. Solo or with the Dead Horses, either way he's great. He's also very approachable and friendly. Hell, at a sparsely attended show in Colorado, I chatted with him and Corby Schaub, his guitarist, throughout the show. With regard to the West Texas thing, I've seen several interviews/appearances where he's been introduced as coming from West Texas and he never failingly corrects that to New Mexico. I can't say I know him, but from the limited contact I have had and the shows I've seen, he's pretty real and down to earth. It's no put on.

Windfarm said...

Anonymous - Thanks for the feedback. I've got no doubt you are right that Ryan is a very nice and genuine guy. Like I said, a lot of my problem with him was mostly irrational and unfounded. The more I've listened to him and read about him I have come around a good bit, and hope to catch a show live in the near future.

Derek - I just couldn't stay a closeted fan anymore.