If the alt-country community is continually on the lookout for the next great Americana hero, they’ve had an easy time of it lately getting excited about the skyrocketing stock of Ryan Bingham. Here’s a brooding and handsome 29-year-old slide-slinger and finger-picker who sings his hillbilly beat poetry in a scrap-metal growl over bristling folk-blues arrangements.
Bingham was already stoking a hot fire with his sophomore album, last year’s dynamite Roadhouse Sun and upped the ante by damn near stealing the Farm Aid concert back in October with a three-song set of hard-as-nails takes on songs from the debut, 2007’s Mescalito. Bingham toured hard, played Letterman twice, landed on 2009’s year-end list, and won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for writing “The Weary Kind” for the film Crazy Heart. Fittingly, Bingham missed the presentation of the Golden Globe because he was drinking beer at the lobby bar.
Bingham’s work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack found him working with producer T-Bone Burnett, who produced Bingham’s third album, the new Junky Star. This is Bingham’s record, a showcase for his tightening songwriting and singular vocals, but it also carries all the hallmarks of a Burnett project, which means, of course, that it sounds terrific.
What a year for Burnett, by the way. After releasing the Crazy Heart soundtrack in January, Burnett was at the helm for Jakob Dylan’s career-best release Women and Country, Willie Nelson’s brilliant revival Country Music, John Mellencamp’s ghost-hunting No Better Than This, and still to come this year is an Elton John/Leon Russell collaboration and a new record from Steve Earle. It’s also worth mentioning that Robert Plant’s upcoming Band of Joy record, while produced by Buddy Miller, is stamped heavily with the T-Bone brand, after Burnett led Plant to these rootsy waters in the first place on Raising Sand.
Burnett’s method on Junky Star is to keep things musically direct and to pare Bingham’s ballads down to their most basic elements. The great accomplishment of Burnett’s work within the roots genre is how timeless, as in impossible to date, they sound. It’s a common goal—to make recordings sound old since everyone loves the sonic quality of dusty old country records—yet Burnett is unique in his sense of restraint, something he pushed further this year on the Nelson and, especially, the Mellencamp records. He doesn’t go quite that far with Junky Star, but his influence is obvious on a set of road-weary tunes that represent the most somber collection from Bingham yet.
The delicate opening song, “The Poet”, serves as a manifesto of sorts, not only announcing that this is going to be a quieter affair—compare it to, say, the raging “Day Is Done”, which opened Roadhouse Sun—one that places the songwriter within the concept of his role as the rambling, observing searcher, a Whitmanesque figure who whispers in the elements—wind, desert, moon, sun, stars, feathers, the heart, the blood all play a part in the song—but who eventually gets into the scrimmage himself. The poets sees the world—the lonely and the wasted—and writes it all in his own blood.
Or so it seems. After all, extrapolating exact meaning from Bingham’s lyrics often requires some imaginative stretches. Nearly every song here is a first-person account of helpless souls on hard-worn trails, driven to kill or to be killed amid a murky mix of scorched-earth imagery. There’s a lot of blood and tears and bleeding tears.
One of Bingham’s best songs last year was “Dylan’s Hard Rain”, but while that tunes was more Byrdsy than Dylanesque, on Junky Star, Bingham takes his crush on ’64 Dylan more musically to heart. Gone are the grizzled electric guitars, replaced here by gentle rolling acoustic patterns and simple harmonica lines and slight embellishments from Bingham’s three-piece band, the Dead Horses.
Even when the drums kick in, as with “The Wandering”, things only reach a modest rollick and on the record’s most upbeat tune, the politically optimistic “Direction of the Wind”, Bingham brings to mind not only the lyrical conceit of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, but also the jump-blues rambles of Dylan’s aughties resurgence. Elsewhere, these are desolate songs of lost souls wandering through the witching season. If the record as a whole lacks narrative details, these songs capture a uniform sensuousness in mood that will certainly get under your skin.
It’s a sonic approach that pushes Bingham’s voice up front on these 12 haunted songs, and his voice is a fascinating instrument. A typical initial reaction to hearing Bingham sing is to worry that he blew his voice out the night before screaming along to a four-hour Springsteen show. Or perhaps that he’s been gargling the broken shards of a hot curling iron. Either way, you eventually learn, especially after seeing Bingham perform live, that this cat can blast that foghorn for hours at full volume and range and not lose a dram of power in the process. Moreover, on Junky Star, Bingham’s stripped voice sounds at turns plaintive, scrappy, and hypnotic, with plenty of subtlety and a ringing vibrato.
The record’s best songs are also tell the best stories: “Hallelujah”, one of the album’s most polished melodies, is told from the point of view of a murdered man who is caught between worlds, realizing that his faith in heaven was misplaced but who can’t return to his earthly loved one either. “Yesterday’s Blues” is a Nebraska-style folk ballad, the album’s most direct love song. The title cut is a story of a farmer’s plight—a story Bingham knows first hand—but one that takes a tragic turn into murder and addiction: “I borrowed a quarter for a call to the other side/Told God that the whole damn world was waiting around to die”. The album’s best tune is “Depression”, finding the narrator getting out of some bullshit town or another that’s going down in flames, reaching the album’s most powerful moment: “I’d rather lay down in a pine box/than to sell my heart to a fuckin’ wasteland.”
Interestingly, one of the record’s grooving peaks comes with the last tune, the Oedipal “All Choked Up Again”, the only tune to feature Burnett sitting in on guitar. With its Waylon-style rhythm stomp and hard-tonkin’ melody, washed over by Burnett’s cosmic tremolo guitar, this is the record’s slinky country coda. As satisfying as Junky Star‘s chilled-out tonal colors and textures are, “All Choked Up Again” sounds so cool that let’s hope it points the way to the next record. After all, we always clamor for more from our honky-tonk heroes, and that’s a title that Ryan Bingham has earned.