What: Ryan Bingham featuring Honey Honey
When: 9 p.m. Friday, March 29
Where: Track 29, 1400 Market St.
Venue website: www.track29.co.
2010: "Junky Star"
2009: "Roadhouse Sun"
A denim-clothed cowboy sits cross-legged, head bowed in the middle of a lonesome highway winding through a landscape baked colorless by the Southwestern sun.
The cover of 2007's "Mescalito" pretty much sums up the stone-washed, road-worn musical textures of its creator, Ryan Bingham, whom Rolling Stone magazine once described as having a voice "like Steve Earle's dad."
Whether Bingham's gruff vocals were the result of hard living and long nights in roadside bars - as a romantic might assume - or just the cold he was recovering from during a recent phone interview, he sounds older than his 31 years.
Bingham is on the second leg of a tour in support of "Tomorrowland," his most recent, and first independently released, record. He says he draws a lot of inspiration from his time spent spinning the dials on the odometer.
"[The songs are] not something I usually feel in the moment. It's usually when you get back home and get somewhere quiet," he says. "That's when it all starts to sink in, and you think about it in the bigger picture."
Bingham, a native New Mexican raised in Texas, will perform Friday night, March 29, at Track 29.
Just across the Mexican border in Nuevo Laredo, at age 17, he discovered a love of music through the tutelage of a neighbor who taught him the mariachi classic "Malagueña" on guitar. For the better part of a year, it was the only song he knew, however, and the love eventually faded.
If for no other reason than to have something else to play, Bingham says, he began writing his own material.
"I got so sick and tired of playing that song," he says, laughing. "[Songwriting] has always been a big release ... the way it helps you get stuff off your chest. That was really what it was all about and still is today."
For material, Bingham drew on his Southwestern surroundings and his background as a rancher and rodeo rider. His music rides the Americana line between country and rock, but it was the authenticity of his voice that helped him gain notoriety and a label deal with Nashville's Lost Highway Records.
Possibly the best-known song in his catalog is "The Weary Kind," which he wrote for 2009's "Crazy Heart," starring Jeff Bridges as a hardscrabble, washed-out singer/songwriter named Otis "Bad" Blake." Bingham's song went on to win a Golden Globe, Academy Award and a Grammy and attracted a lot of attention to his work.
Once the applause died down, Bingham says, he realized it was time to get back to work.
"I guess I'd been on the road too long before all that stuff happened," he says. "It was a great thing and so much fun, and I had a blast doing it, but at the end of the day, once the party was over, the party was over.
"Then it was back to getting on the road and playing songs and writing music."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Texas-raised, Los Angeles-based Americana singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham about his current tour, his increasing comfort with writing political songs and writing "The Weary Kind" for the film "Crazy Heart."
Q: You're about three weeks into the second leg of your North American Tour. That's been going on since last fall. Are you starting to feel a little road weary?
A: You know, this tour has gone by so fast. We've been having a lot of fun. We have a great crew out here on the road. It's been going really good. I've had a bit of cold the last couple of days, but I've got a day off today, so I'm healing up today. We've only got about a week and a half left.
Q: Does a lot of your music come from being on the road?
A: Totally. A lot of it does. It's not something I usually feel in the moment. It's usually when you get back home and get somewhere quiet and start reflecting on all the places you've been and are sitting around with friends and telling stories about different towns and stuff that happened. That's when it all starts to sink in, and you think about it in the bigger picture. That's when it starts coming out in the songs for me.
Q: Did any of those songs off "Tomorrowland" come from road experiences?
A: A lot of them did. It's not necessarily that each song is about something specifically. There are so many moments that go in the songs - little life experiences, things in your past and in your present. There's a lot of stuff out there. Traveling around, you get exposed to so much so fast on the road. You're waking up in a different city each day, and it's all happening so fast that you don't even have time to think about it. You just live in the moment and try to make sense of it when you get home. [Laughs.]
Q: How do you keep your energy up on the road?
A: [Laughs.] Man, it really helps having a good crew of people around you. When you get a bunch of good folks around you, it goes by really fast. We're all just having a lot of fun. You definitely need to take care of yourself. I definitely feel like I'm not in my early 20s anymore; the hangovers hurt worse than they used to. The main thing is to eat well and get a lot of sleep. You just take care of yourself the best you can. I still have fun along the way, but the key, I guess, is just moderation. [Laughs.]
Q: Walk me through your origins. When did you start playing music? Was songwriting something you did from the beginning or did you come to it later?
A: I was about 17 years old when I first started playing. I moved down to Laredo, Texas, near the border with Mexico. A neighbor friend of my parents was slumming around there and was playing mariachi songs. He taught me to play this song called the "Malagueña." It's a really old, classical Mariachi song. Whatever version he taught me of it was probably just a broken down version of it.
Q: What attracted you to music to begin with?
A: I don't really know what I wanted out of music. Growing up, I was a big fan of music. I loved to listen to music on the radio. I was enamored by it and by people who could play musical instruments, but I never thought I had any musical talent or would be able to play.
My mother bought me a guitar when I was about 16, a year before we moved to Larendo, but it just stayed in the closet. I pulled it out and tried to play it, but I couldn't ever figure anything out, so I got frustrated with it and put it down. It wasn't until I got down there and that guy taught me to play a song and showed me how to play some chords that it really sunk it. Then, I don't know, I just got obsessed with it more than anything. I haven't put the guitar down since then.
Q: Did you immediately start writing songs or did that come later?
A: Nah, the songwriting came later. When I first started to play, I learned that song that guy taught me. I guess the reason I started writing songs because I moved away to Fort Worth, Texas, and that was the only song I knew how to play for a year.
I got so sick and tired of playing that song that I started making up other songs. I started making out one- and two-chord progressions. I sat around and started rambling these random thoughts. They weren't even songs. I was just talking out loud. I wasn't even singing. I was saying them over the top of these chord progressions. That's how it all got started.
Q: Who were you listening to, early on?
A: I spent a lot of time with my uncle growing up, and he had a bunch of old records from the '60s and '70s, everything from Bob Wills to Bob Marley. He had a lot of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, The Clash and all the country stuff - Willie and Waylon and Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Marshall Tucker Band was one I really liked growing up. I really liked that guy's voice. I liked George Thorogood and his slide guitar, and all the blues stuff like Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters and all that stuff.
Q: Southwestern states - West Texas and New Mexico, in particular - have a very distinct spirit and vibe. Did or does growing up in the Southwest impact your music?
A: Yeah, I think so, in a way. When I think about it, a lot of times, when you're out there and listening to music and doing whatever you're doing, that landscape and horizon and all that out there is just ingrained in your memory forever. You always have this visual image of that. It seems like, whenever I write songs, no matter what the song is about or where it's going to go, you always have that image of that landscape of where you came from. That's always at the root of it all, even if the song doesn't have anything to do with that. The song kind of has to start there.
Q: In your head, are the songs set in the Southwest? Are they playing out in your head, visually, as if they were in that landscape?
A: You know, I don't know about them being set there, but say you're over in London or Paris somewhere and you're writing a song about that, but at the same time, you have this longing and homesickness for where you came from. That's in the back of your mind. You're writing about a whole new place and experience that you're in, but at the same time, you have a part of your past and where you're from that will always be there.
Q: What do you get out of the songwriting process? What does it do for you?
A: For me, it's always been a big release. I think that's one of the things that got me into writing songs, the way it helps you get stuff off your chest. When I was young and writing songs, I didn't have people to talk to about things, and it was a way to deal with my emotions. It was therapy for dealing with all the stuff that was going on that I didn't quite understand. I didn't have anyone to talk to, but at least you could get it off your chest and say it out loud in your song. That was really what it was all about and still is today.
Q: What do you want listeners to take away from your songs?
A: You know, I don't know. It's not necessarily something I think about when I'm writing. At the beginning, it always starts with this initial emotion or feeling you have, and you're just getting that off your chest. Playing and performing live is a whole different chapter in the book. There's songs and the intro and then here comes the tour and playing for people.
I always hope people can hear the songs and get something out of it for themselves and relate to it in their own way to their own situation. Even if the song isn't necessarily written to their situation, if they can relate to it and helps them to deal with it and make sense out of their own troubles, that's the magic in the song and the connection with listeners.
Q: Some of the songs on "Tomorrowland" are political and message-based. Was that new for you?
A: I don't know if it's new, but it's definitely something I've been learning to communicate better. Any time you're saying something political, it's always a touchy subject. You're not really trying to voice a crazy opinion on how you think about a certain situation. You're just trying to say out loud how that stuff makes you feel. That goes back to how writing songs helps you make sense about the world and process the information that's coming in.
Inevitably, that stuff is going to come out. The more you travel around the country, the more experiences you have and the more stuff you see, you're writing about all those experiences, and part of that is the stuff you see on TV or read in the newspaper or a conversation you get in at the local coffee shop. Being honest in the song is writing about the subject you feel something about and not being worried about editing.
Q: How does "Tomorrowland" represent an evolution for you, musically, from your other albums?
A: I think the main thing with the record was that I didn't want to have an agenda with it. There was an opportunity to do a record with our own label, so there wasn't a marketing team saying it needed to be a country album or a rock'n'roll album. It was going in with a bucket of paint, throwing it on the wall and letting it turn into whatever it wanted to be.
I knew from the get go that I wanted songs to be a lot of fun to play live. I know I would be touring with them quite a bit, so I wanted them to be fun to play. The last record was stripped down and acoustic, so the songs were sad to play every night. I wanted to have more fun with this one.
I've been playing a lot of electric guitar, so I wrote a lot of the songs on electric guitar. I went in the studio without much of a plan. I had the songs written, but I wanted the songs to create themselves and experiment with it to see where it would go on its own. I wanted to let it influence itself, in a way.
Q: Now that it's been out about six months, how are the songs growing, on you and on audiences?
A: It's been great. With every record it's always the same. When it first comes out, it takes a little while for the audience to respond to songs they've never heard before. It always seems it takes about six or seven months before you hit the road and people have had time to listen to the record and figure out what the songs are about. Then, it really starts coming together. It's been really cool playing these songs live and hearing people sing them. It really helps it come together at the end of the time.
Q: How did you become involved in working on "Crazy Heart?"
A: Initially, I got involved by meeting the director, Scott Cooper. I just met him for lunch one day, and he gave me a copy of the script. He said they were looking for songs. That's how it started.
Q: Describe the process of writing "Weary Kind."
A: Really, the song came straight from the script. I took the script and read it, took it on the road for a couple of weeks. It was really about the character, Bad Blake. Really, it came from the script, but at the same time, my father was very much a character like Bad Blake in that film. He had a lot of friends I grew up with who were like that. I was raised in that environment with those characters in that situation. The inspiration wasn't really too far from home, you know what I mean?
Q: That song received overwhelmingly positive critical response. How did that affect your approach music or your perception of yourself, as an artist?
A: That whole thing was such a surreal experience. To me, I guess I'd been on the road too long before all that stuff happened, and it didn't seem like it affected me as much as I thought it would.
To me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that happened, and it was a great thing and so much fun, and I had a blast doing it, but at the end of the day, once the party was over, the party was over. Then, it was back to getting on the road and playing songs and writing music. I went back to the same spot I did before in writing songs, which was thinking about all the places you travel around to and the people you meet and the stuff that happens and writing about that. My day-to-day life hasn't really changed that much.
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.