Music

Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses: Junky Star

Ryan Bingham pairs with T-Bone Burnett on the lovely, somber third record from a rising roots-rock star.


Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses

Junky Star

US Release: 2010-08-31
UK Release: 2010-08-31
Label: Lost Highway
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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.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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