[3 June 2009]
This is country music the way God intended it to be. On his second set for Lost Highway, this Texas-reared singer-songwriter delivers a dozen tunes full of hard living, hard drinking and hard rocking. The album could just as well have been called Roadhouse Son as Bingham’s biography reads like the lyrics of a country song, the tale of a young talent nurtured by roughnecks and raised on rough times.
Bingham’s story is one of self-reliance (reportedly, Bingham has lived on his own since his teens), salvation (finding a home as a bull-rider on a traveling rodeo circuit) and ultimately, success: a regular Wednesday night bar gig was the first step on the path to a highly-touted, incredibly well-received major label debut, 2007’s Mescalito.
Yet, Bingham is certainly not content to trade on his personal history or cash in by pandering to the conventions of country music. Certainly, Bingham’s talent shines through on the expected whiskey-and-women songs (“Every night I fall asleep with whiskey in my mind / Hoping that I might wake up next to you” he sings here on “Rollin Highway Blues”). He delivers these lines with staggering authenticity, letting out the right amount of both soul and swagger as he sings each note with his tough-as-an-asphalt-road voice. While cuts like these are to be treasured and would alone be worth the album’s sticker price, Bingham regularly expands the scope of what he’s doing, both musically and thematically.
Bingham and his skilled band, the Dead Horses, weave threads of rock (most notably using jangly, Byrds-inspired guitars on “Dylan’s Hard Rain”), bluegrass (the terrific “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So”), and raggedy blues (augmented by the influence of producer/former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford) throughout the (mostly) seamless fabric of Roadhouse Sun. Lyrically, Bingham isn’t simply content to cry into his beer or wrestle his personal demons only; more universally-focused tracks like “Endless Ways” and “Dylan’s Hard Rain”, an attempt to update the sprawling social dynamic tackled by the titular maestro, expand the lens through which Bingham looks. Bingham’s efforts at seeing the bigger picture and the greater point are only made all the more poignant by the degree of self-reflection he employs on other tunes. Once the listener has grasped Bingham’s tremendous worldliness, honesty and perception, it’s all the easier to accept his verdict on what’s going on outside his front door. Yes, this is the thinking man’s honky-tonk music.
The best examples of Bingham’s songcraft come in a variety of musical shapes and colors: the aforementioned “Dylan’s Hard Rain” and “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So” shine brightly. The harmonica-led “Country Roads” is a brilliant mash-up of the aggressive alt.country on Ryan Adams’ early solo albums (think Gold or Demolition) and rambling bluegrass. “Change Is” is a spread-out, seven minute plus affair that showcases Bingham’s ability to tie together unique musical sections while “Rollin Highway Blues” is a prime representation of Bingham’s ability to break your heart by showing you his.
Roadhouse Sun isn’t perfect; a few tracks bring the album back to earth and remind that Bingham is only two albums into a bright-lights, major-label career. For example, “Hey Hey Hurray” is probably the least tuneful, least focused track on the album. The tremendous maturity he shows on most of the album should continue to translate and reach further as he matures in his career. There are enough tragic and wonderful songs here to reinforce the notion that Bingham is and will continue to be an important artist.
Bridging the gap between the Budweiser set and the indie rock barfly is not an easy task but Bingham seems up to the challenge. He connects the listener with emotions and ideas common to us all and, in doing so, reinforces the power and reinvigorates the promise of a genre once defined by the Cashs, Haggards and Jennings of the world.