Ryan Bingham Conquers Fear and Loathing to Rock the American Dream
Ryan Bingham’s disarming and humble take on socio-political affairs once again shows music's cathartic power to transcend difficult times.
Ryan BinghamCity: Los Angeles
Venue: The Regent Theater
These are troubled times in the fall of 2015 and Ryan Bingham knows plenty about that. The bluesy singer/songwriter/guitarist with the gritty cowboy voice was born to alcoholic parents in a remote part of New Mexico and rarely had a place to call home for long while growing up. There were surely countless nights of fear about an uncertain future and loathing for circumstances he didn’t create. But the modern day troubadour and former pro rodeo rider found solace in music and now owns a career as one of rock 'n' roll’s most heartfelt songwriters and performers.
Bingham traded in life as a Texas cowboy for Southern California’s Topanga Canyon almost a decade ago and released his fifth album this year with Fear and Saturday Night. He won a Grammy and an Oscar for co-writing country hit “The Weary Kind” from 2009’s Crazy Heart soundtrack, which then saw the music industry try to package him as more of an Americana/country artist. He dabbles in those genres with genuine skill, but anyone who’s caught Bingham’s live show knows that the man is a rocker first and foremost.
PopMatters caught up with Bingham the day of his show at LA’s Regent Theater on 18 November, less than a week after the shocking terrorist attacks in Paris that cranked up the planet’s fear and loathing factor yet another notch (history buffs might also note that legendary writer Hunter S. Thompson first coined the phrase “fear and loathing” to describe the mood that had come over him after a similarly shocking event, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on 22 November 1963.) Bingham’s disarming and humble take on socio-political affairs once again shows music's cathartic power to transcend difficult times, as did the electrifying two-and-half hour show he and his band threw down that night.
“Fuck those motherfuckers, let’s go play every night for the people,” Bingham defiantly told LA music blog Grimy Goods earlier in the week when commenting on the attack at the Eagles of Death Metal show at the Bataclan Theater in Paris. He also connected that attitude to the title track of his latest album and its theme of not letting fear keep one from going out to seek a good time on the weekend no matter what’s going on. This only heightened PopMatters’ anticipation to speak further with Bingham to get more insights on what makes his musical clock tick.
Bingham’s fearless comments about the Paris attacks recall his outspoken action when he played for protesters of Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union crackdown during the “We Are Wisconsin Rally for Democracy” in Madison, Wisconsin in March of 2011. Bingham braved the winter chill to deliver timely and crowd-pleasing acoustic renditions of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land", in addition to his own politically-tinged “Direction of the Wind". Like much of his career, Bingham says he just found himself in the right place at the right time.
“We just happened to be in town. We were playing a show in Madison when all that was going on, and you can’t help but be affected by it when you’re right in the middle of it,” Bingham explained. “It was just a very real part of life, a reality that was right there in your face. To talk to people on the streets and see how compassionate everybody was, and it was just more of a collaborative thing that everybody was involved in there… It was just something that kind of happened.”
As to his defiant comments toward terrorists and singing out against those who would seek to suppress liberty, Bingham says it’s merely part of his general disposition.
“I guess for me, I can’t help it, I kinda gotta say what I feel, you know, that’s what songwriting has always been about for me as well,” Bingham said. “The songs and talking about stuff is helping to process the things going on in the world and things you’re going through personally, and things you’re going through in relationships with other people. I don’t know, I guess for me, it’s just the kind of musicians that I grew up listening to that I was inspired by. I didn’t ever really know there was any other way to do it.”
If ISIS terrorists had any clue as to how much most peace loving rock ‘n’ roll fans loathe the imperialist warmongering of Uncle Sam and NATO (as well as the Corporatocracy’s undemocratic push for global hegemony), they might think again about attacking a theater in alleged protest against “pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.” Here’s a tip ISIS -- there’s really not much if any prostitution going on at rock concerts these days and even if there were, such hate is terribly misguided. The classic triumvirate of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is not the culprit for what’s keeping people down in the Middle East. Most live music fans crave more social justice too and are merely trying to dance their troubles away for a little while before they have to report back to their wage slave jobs on Monday morning.
Attacking music fans only further alienates the more liberal segment of society that might potentially give sympathy toward an Islamic beef with Western militarism. Not to mention artists who might pen a sympathetic song about a revolutionary cause, if it were a truly righteous one instead of a just another extremist hate campaign that’s just as bad as what it purports to rebel against. If jihadists really wanted to strike against Western imperialism, they would make much more of an impact by taking a page from the American revolutionaries of Project Mayhem in Fight Club and blowing up the headquarters of major credit card companies (not to mention the military industrial complex.)
Politics aside, Ryan Bingham is one of those relatively rare and special empathetic artists who just can’t help but sympathize with the downtrodden. He cites artists such as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, in addition to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, as major influences due to having his own experiences that he could relate to their songs. It’s no wonder then that Bingham now carries on the tradition of writing songs with a universal appeal about dealing with life’s struggles in an all-too-often cruel and heartless world.
“I don’t know, I’ve got a really good friend of mine, I never really thought about it but he told me one time, ‘Man, you’re an artist, you’re too sensitive,’ haha. I guess I just take things to heart, I don’t know how to let ‘em go by so easy. I think it comes back to traveling so much and being in those environments where that stuff’s really happening, you’re not necessarily watching it on the news,” Bingham said, citing playing in New Orleans during the time of the BP oil spill in addition to the Wisconsin protests. “Every day you wake up in some city where something’s going on and it’s just like wow, you’re meeting people in the streets, you’re seeing it, you’re seeing the police presence or whatever it is. How do you ignore that? I don’t know, I guess it just has a big effect on me.”
As to his songwriting, Bingham described a process that usually involves finding some solitude to develop the tunes after coming up with a musical seed. “It usually starts with the music and coming up with melodies from there, and then really just finding some solitude to kind of get in touch with what you’re feeling and really kind of contemplate and reflect on the places that you’ve been traveling to and people you meet along the way and all those experiences and just talking about it in more of a conversational kind of manner,” Bingham explained of his methodology.
Bingham’s songs tend to mention whiskey and stoners from time to time, but he said he has no specific whiskey preferences (although he is known to have a soft spot for Lone Star Beer from Texas.) As to cannabis, he said he’s recently found himself influenced more toward the healing properties of the sweet leaf than booze.
“I’ve seen more of the guys in the band smoke a lot more and it’s definitely a nice change. You don’t drink nearly as much and I definitely learned a few lessons from Willie Nelson on that note too,” Bingham said in his typically charming and self-deprecating manner. Bingham had the opportunity to tour with Nelson and says getting to hang out with the music legend affected his entire outlook, including the concept of potentially touring into his 80s like Nelson is.
“I feel really lucky to be able to get out here and play music for people and have the opportunity to do it for a living. I think that was a real eye opener, I did a big tour with Willie a few years back, and done a bunch of shows, and really learned a lot from him on how to go about it. When you watch him get on up stage in front of a sold out show and play for two hours in the rain, and you’re just like holy fuck, that’s how you do it,” Bingham said in a reverent tone, ”When I was on the road when I was younger, you get a little shortsighted where you’re just kinda living day to day and not really thinking ahead of time. And that’s something I really kind of woke up to when I was on the road with him, it was really like, wow, am I still gonna be doing this 20, 30 years from now, playing the same venues, same deal and it’s like kinda of something you have to accept… I’m having a blast and I hope I get to do it as long as I can.”
Bingham’s career took a fortuitously fateful turn a decade ago when a friend got him a gig at the King King club in Hollywood at midnight on a Monday night, where the lead guitarist of the Black Crowes was one of the few patrons on hand. “There was three or four people in the bar and Marc Ford just happened to be in there and liked what I was doing, and came up to me after the show and we started hanging out and talking about recording and music and it all happened after that,” Bingham said of the night his career path turned from solo acoustic troubadour toward fully electrified rock ‘n’ roller. The two musicians bonded and Ford went on to become a musical mentor to Bingham as well as producing Bingham’s first two albums, 2007’s Mescalero and 2009’s Roadhouse Sun.
“When I met Marc, I’d never even played an electric guitar before. And on those first two records, he bought me an electric guitar, off Ebay for like a hundred bucks, and gave me a slide and said ‘Here, I think this fits your personality,” Bingham said with a chuckle. “I’d never really played with a band either, I’d kinda been playing with a drummer and a mandolin player but…. It was really like going to music school, he really taught me a lot about how to play the guitar and how to play with a band, and how to dial in tones with an electric guitar. That was a huge learning experience getting to work with Marc and it was a pretty incredible time.”
The Black Crowes were one of the first modern jambands to hit the music scene in the early ‘90s and play live rock ‘n’ roll with an improvisational flair rarely seen at the time. Bingham shared many of the same classic rock influences with Ford and was soon putting together a band that could rock out in a similar fashion.
“A lot of that music [Black Crowes and jambands] was a big influence on me, and I’m a big fan of bands like the Faces and the Stones and Zeppelin and all that stuff,” Bingham said. “And I enjoy that part of it on the road when you’re playing every night to kinda keep it a little spontaneous and it’s not just so rehearsed where we don’t have room to make some mistakes and kind of learn new things. I feel like you’re learning every night how to become a better musician… and it’s fun to try stuff. Sometimes it’s a total trainwreck but you never know until you get there, ya know, if you don’t try it out.”
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That freewheeling vibe was readily apparent during Bingham’s recent show at the Regent Theater, particularly on a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” featuring members of opening band Jamestown Revival. “This might be a total trainwreck but we’re gonna see what happens,” Bingham warned before the ensemble delivered a stellar rendition of the alt-country rock classic with Bingham nailing Mick Jagger’s lead vocal in his own West Texas troubadour style.
Tunes like “Depression", “Hallelujah” and “Hard Times” all shined with the benefit of pedal steel guitar to add an extra sonic shimmer that takes Bingham’s sound to a higher level. He also played slide guitar on several other songs for a strong bluesy sound that certainly does fit his persona. “Radio” was an early highlight from the new album, with Bingham emoting on a mid-tempo rocker about getting off on the sounds coming from his radio that evolved into a raucous up-tempo jam at the end. The psychedelic “Bluebird” soared as ever with an extended jam that showed the band’s ability to stretch out in a ‘70s classic rock kind of way, with Bingham singing of taking his chances breathing as “water rises on a lonely soul.”
The autobiographical “Nobody Knows My Trouble” was another winner from the new album, with Bingham cathartically singing his blues away and playing harmonica on a honky tonk ballad that touches on the power of music and love to transcend tough times. Bingham said the new “Adventures of You and Me” was inspired by Flaco Jiménez, with the upbeat song featuring cross country tales that included making friends with long haired hippie stoners and “living so high that our minds are out of reach". It was understandable then when Bingham took offense to a fan being ejected later by venue security for merely smoking weed.
“Dude got kicked out for smoking weed? I thought we were in Sunny California,” Bingham said incredulously, apparently not realizing that many Los Angeles music venues are not quite as fan friendly as the fabled Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco (a venue he’d played for the first time the previous night in another career milestone.) This seemed to call for another tale of challenging times in “My Diamond Is Too Rough", with Bingham singing of being told to give up and go home “but to have no home to go to is something they’ll never know". The two-hour set closed with “Southside of Heaven", the classic opening track from Bingham’s first album that starts off as an atmospheric cowboy tune before building into an uplifting high-energy rocker that never fails to ignite.
Bingham still had plenty of juice left for an extended encore that started with several solo acoustic tunes, including the soulful lament of “The Weary Kind” that has to resonate deep with anyone who ever felt like they might lose their mind over a broken heart. “These ain’t sad songs, I just happen to have been around, thanks for sticking around,” Bingham seemed obliged to say as an explanation for all the tunes about being down and out with a bad case of the blues. The next tune helped show why no explanation was necessary as the rest of the band came back out for “Sunshine", a hard-hitting romp with heavy blues slide from the first album. The darker the world gets, the more the song resonates as Bingham sings one of his most classic lyrics with the emphatic line, “Tell the darkness that ain’t you ain’t no slave!”
The song epitomizes the way in which Ryan Bingham’s career serves as a shining example of how blues music can be utilized to transcend personal difficulties. His success demonstrates not only how many people can relate, but also how blues and rock music can serve as an actual saviour. This it does for those who count music as their religion because no other form of organized religion ever lifted their soul up in the powerful way that great music can. The liberating power of music is something that terrorists may never understand, but they ought to give it a try.