Oscar-winner Ryan Bingham keeps it dry and dusty after ‘Crazy Heart’
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
ASPEN – Just as fish are unaware that they’re surrounded by water, and Aspenites don’t notice the displays of extreme wealth in their midst, Ryan Bingham never paid much mind to the fact that his atmosphere was populated by the particular species of musician known as the Texas singer-songwriter. It’s just what was there, in abundance, all the time, and perhaps he only would have noticed their presence if they had suddenly been taken away.
“The people I grew up listening to – Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark and Joe Ely and Terry Allen – these are just the people who were around,” the 29-year-old Bingham said from a tour stop in Eugene, Ore. “It didn’t have anything to do with them being Texans. That never crossed my mind.”
Bingham, who performs Saturday at Belly Up Aspen with his three-piece band, the Dead Horses, was born in New Mexico, spent some time in Bakersfield, Calif., but then went whole-hog Texan, bouncing from Midland to Houston to Laredo to Fort Worth, depending on where his father, an oil-field worker, had jobs. Even as he made his way into the bigger world, Bingham remained in the thick of a certain kind of music. He began singing while he was a bull-rider on the rodeo circuit. At the after-parties, the rodeo owners would let Bingham play the guitar his mother had given him. Bingham played his own songs, but because of the setting, and because of Bingham’s experiences, the tunes that came out hued to a certain dusty, story-telling aesthetic.
Bingham didn’t go far for college, spending a year and a half at Tarleton State, in Stephensville, near Fort Worth. He found himself frequenting a club that had live music on the weekends, his first experiences really taking in live performances. Given that the school was about smack in the middle of Texas, it’s no surprise that the music was Texas singer-songwriter fare. Bingham recalls seeing repeat appearances by Robert Earl Keen, a musician who proudly upholds the Texas traditions.
“Junky Star,” Bingham’s third album, released in August, makes it easy to identify its creator. Bingham’s voice is dry and creaky; the songs are spare, echoing and close to the ground. The album examines the rougher emotional corners, with songs like “Hard Worn Trail,” “Depression” and “Yesterday’s Blues.” Bingham says that’s not a reflection of influences like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, but on the tenor of the past couple years.
“I try to be as hopeful as possible,” he said. “But you’re writing about the stuff you experience. Given the things people are going through, and the way things are going out there, this is what I’m seeing. It’s not always bright and sunny.”
Bingham, though, has had the kind of moment that is usually witnessed only in dreams. “Crazy Heart,” the 2009 film which starred Jeff Bridges as a down-and-out singer (and which earned the actor an Academy Award), featured two songs performed by Bingham, including “The Weary Kind,” which he also wrote. The song earned Bingham an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
Bingham can’t say whether “Crazy Heart” is a career-altering moment. “It’s still kind of learning what’s coming out of it. Everything happens so fast,” he said.
But it hasn’t seemed to change his music. “Junky Star” won’t strike anyone as a celebration.
“I wanted to keep it real stripped down, more acoustic than the first two [albums],” Bingham, who has lived in Los Angeles the last four years, said. “When I started playing and writing it, I didn’t have a band. I just wanted to play it that way.”
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