Three years ago, Ryan Bingham’s music career was going nowhere in a hurry. After a long, arduous life on the road, he was reduced to playing slummy, low-life dives, second on the bill to organised rodent-racing.
Eighteen months later he was picking up an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song (for The Weary Kind from Crazy Heart) and finding himself widely hailed as the brightest new star in the firmament.
Though he’s routinely bracketed with the Americana/Alt. Country crowd (Jayhawks, Calexico, Band Of Heathens and all), Bingham is not so easily pinned down. Over the course of three albums (2007’s Mesalito, 2009’s Roadhouse Sun and 2010’s Junky Star), backed by his band The Dead Horses, he has veered from way-worn outlaw country music to raw-boned roadhouse blues to rootless, wind-bitten folk without missing a beat. His bruised vignettes tell of a restless life spent travelling a nation too vast to understand, where the only thing that makes sense is to keep on moving until maybe there will come a day when he runs out of road. In the meantime he keeps moving, dragging around the baggage that is his past.
His work owes as much to primitive 19th century ballads about the urge to roam as it does to any number of blues numbers (especially Robert Johnson’s Dust My Broom), Hank Williams’ Lost Highway, Woody Guthrie’s Hard Travellin’, Chuck Berry’s Promised Land, Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Elvis Presley’s Long Lonely Highway, The Band’s Endless Highway, Merle Haggard’s Movin’ On, Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, Joe Ely’s Highways And Heartaches and Cowboy Junkies’ 200 More Miles.
On the day that Ryan Bingham calls me from his Memphis hotel, he’s scheduled to join his band downtown to record a session at Sun Studios. He couldn’t be more excited at the prospect of performing in the same space where Jackie Brenston recorded Rocket 88 (reputedly the first rock’n’roll record), where Elvis recorded the songs that brought rock’n’roll to the world, and where the careers of Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis were launched. For the next two hours, he regales me with tales of his uproarious hell-raising, bull-riding past and explains how he managed to emerge from rank oblivion to become music’s next big thing.
JW: It seems like your life has largely been spent on the road, moving aimlessly from place to place. When did all that start?
RB: It feels like I’ve always been on the move. I was born in New Mexico in a little place called Hobbs, forty miles from the nearest town. My folks had a ranch there, which had to be sold because of some family dispute. By the time I was five, we were always moving. My dad realised that there was better money to be made out of the oil fields and the pot ash mines so we moved away to Bakersfield, California. Then we kept on moving. We were never in one place for more than a few months. I guess that became the pattern of my life. I grew up and never felt comfortable staying in one place for too long. Looking back it was a strange kind of life but I didn’t know any better. I got so used to moving that I never bothered to unpack when we arrived in a new place. I figured we’d be somewhere else real soon so I just kept my stuff in its cardboard boxes. That became normal to me. It used to enrage my mother but I’d say, “What’s the fucking point?”
Both my parents were bad alcoholics and they had problems with drugs as well.
JW: Was it a poor upbringing?
RB: Dirt poor. Looking back, maybe that was something to be angry about but I can’t say I was too conscious of it at the time. All I knew was that something wasn’t right with the way we were living. My parents always put a brave face on it, pretending that things were alright. Then suddenly they weren’t OK. As a kid you deal with what’s in front of you. Looking back, maybe it wasn’t as happy a childhood as I told myself it was at the time. Once the ranch was sold things were never the same. Both my parents were bad alcoholics and they had problems with drugs as well. I guess I grew up thinking that all that stuff was OK. The first thing an alcoholic is going to do is give you a beer because it’s a way of hiding their own problems. Gradually I woke up from this fantasy that this was all normal. I had to accept that not all families functioned this way.
JW: How did you get into riding bulls?
RB: It was a natural part of my upbringing. I didn’t wake up one morning and think, “I should start riding some bulls.” It’s what my family did. My grandfather, my dad and my uncles were real cowboys. They all rode bulls. One of my uncles rode professionally. When me and my folks returned to Texas, I was eleven-years-old. That’s when I started hanging out with my uncle a lot more, even lived with him for a while. He got me into riding bulls properly, took me to my first rodeo. I started out riding the steers, doing the junior rodeos. Then I moved on to bigger bulls, competing in the local jackpot rodeos for cash prizes. At seventeen I dropped out of school and met these Mexican guys at one of the jackpot events in Laredo, Texas. We became buddies and they started taking me across the border to Mexico. There was a nightclub where they’d have bull riding late on Friday nights. Some of these bulls weighed 2000 pounds. These were real beasts. The money was OK. I could make a couple of hundred bucks on the weekend, more than I could make digging holes all week.
JW: I must say, attempting to ride a bull seems just about the maddest, dumbest thing a man can do.
RB: I think you’re right. My good friend, the singer Robert Earl Keen described bull riding as well as anyone ever will. He said it’s like driving down the highway at 70mph and you throw the steering wheel out of the window. That’s close enough. To ride bulls you need to be a little bit crazy and a little bit dumb. I look back on it now and think, “What the fuck was I doing?”
a black angus named Spanky reared his head up and crushed my face, leaving my top lip hanging from my face
JW: How good at it were you?
RB: I had good nights and bad nights. It’s not about how long you can stay on the bull. You need to stay on for eight seconds before they give you a score. You’re judged on how well the bull bucks and how well you stay in control of the beast. I was a decent rider. But I was never so good that I could do it full-time and make a proper living off it. Also it takes its toll after a while. If you’re not focussed you’re liable to get hurt. You kind of need to have your shit together. I mean, it’s not unknown for people to get killed when trying to ride bulls. You don’t want to be climbing on top of one of those big beasts after a night on the whiskey. Down the years I rode hundreds of them and the injuries started mounting up. I broke both legs, both hands, a wrist or two and the big toe on my right foot three times. One night in Weatherford, Texas, a black angus named Spanky reared his head up and crushed my face, leaving my top lip hanging from my face and knocking out most of my upper teeth. By that time I figured that writing songs would be easier on the body, if not the mind.
JW: What kind of musical education did you have?
RB: Fairly minimal. I wasn’t one of those kids who got into music and became obsessed with it. I was never into much of anything. Moving around so much as I did, there would have been no point in having a record collection as it would have just got left behind. Around the age of twelve I lived with my uncle for a while and he had a box of old vinyl records. He had everything from Bob Wills to Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt to The Rolling Stones. I’d listen to those records all day long and you might say that’s the only musical education I ever had. The rest of it was just the really bad stuff they play on the radio.
I didn’t pick up a guitar until my sixteenth birthday when my mother gave me one as a present. A little classical guitar with gut strings. For a year it just sat in its box. I couldn’t play a single note on it. To me, it was like reading Chinese or something. I really didn’t have a clue how to start playing it. At that stage I hadn’t even done any singing, apart from crooning some Willie Nelson number in the shower. I ended up living in Laredo for a while, in this seedy apartment block. Next door to me was this crackhead who taught me to play a mariachi-style folk song called La Malaguena.
JW: So how did you get from that to the point of performing your own songs live?
RB: I was travelling around from rodeo to rodeo, making a little money out of that. To make ends meet I would do what most bull-riders did, taking any kind of manual labour that was going. Shoeing horses, branding cattle, digging ditches, building fences, painting walls, framing houses, pouring concrete, washing cars, welding…the list goes on and on. I was so sick of working these jobs. I tried to go to school for a little while but that didn’t work out. I had zero life stability. My family all seemed to be driven apart. I felt completely lost with no clue how to change anything. I started travelling to the rodeos as a way of escaping all the madness of my home life. Then it got to the point where I didn’t want to return home so I kept on moving. From the age of fifteen it felt like home wasn’t really there for me anymore. We were living in a place where the electricity had been cut off because my parents hadn’t paid the bills. At the same time I’d find dope all over the place. Or I’d come home and find a line of white powder on the television set and I’d figure, “Ah, so that’s why we’ve got no electricity this month.”
None of us had homes to go to. Some nights I’d sleep on the sidewalk.
At nineteen, I went off to Stephenville, Texas, and enrolled at a branch of the university where they had a rodeo program so I did that for eighteen months. How the music started was that I was travelling around doing these rodeos and I would bring my guitar with me and make up songs with my friends as we were going down the road. We stopped at one tiny bar and started playing these songs. The bartender asked us if we wanted to come back and play once a week. For the next year, I’d be doing the rodeo and I’d be earning a little extra on the side playing these kinds of bars on my own. At this stage my guitar-playing was still rudimentary. I only knew two or three chords and I had no idea how to structure a song. I couldn’t do any cover versions because I had no idea how to copy what someone else was playing. So my only option was to write my own stuff. It was really a matter of strumming along and making up stories.
For a while it was just me performing with my guitar. For ages I couldn’t get a band to play with me because I didn’t know how to play. Musicians would always be walking out on me because, as far as they were concerned, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The songs I was writing were so personal to me that I really didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought of them.
Then, for a couple of years, it was me and a drummer. Gradually we added a guitar and bass, that’s when I really started to play music. Then music became the excuse to stay on the road and keep moving. For a long time it was much more about the adventure than the music itself. After a show we’d bed down wherever we could. Usually we’d just park our old Suburban in a lot, pull down the back seat and spend the night there. None of us had homes to go to. Some nights I’d sleep on the sidewalk.
JW: Around this time, did you have any sense at all that music could become a serious career?
RB: Quite the opposite. No one was saying to us, “You guys are great, keep at it.” Even our friends told us we were wasting our time and that we’d never amount to anything. People regarded us as a bunch of drunken losers and they couldn’t understand why we didn’t just quit and get proper jobs.
We would just keep driving until we found the next place to play. We’d pull up at some bar, knock on the door and ask if we could do a gig. If we ran out of money we could be stuck in a town for a week until we raised enough money for more gas so we could move to the next place. One time in Utah we were stuck in a town for a couple of weeks, completely penniless. We’d gatecrash parties in the hope that someone would offer us a sofa, a floor, even a back yard, somewhere we could crash for the night. Most of the time we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.
It’s only further down the road that you stop to think about the places you’ve been and the things you’ve survived.
JW: How would you describe life on the road?
RB: I’d definitely say I had a love-hate relationship with it. It certainly had its ups and downs. One night I might end up somewhere, sleeping on a sidewalk and wonder if I’d get out alive. The next night I’m somewhere else and it feels like the most beautiful place in the world. I loved those extremes. But life on the road takes so much out of you. A lot of the time you don’t even realise that because you’re too busy trying to get by. It’s only further down the road that you stop to think about the places you’ve been and the things you’ve survived. It’s easy to romanticise that life but it’s definitely not romantic. It’s not like a Disney movie. It’s humbling. But it’s also something I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed out on. To move aimlessly from town to town, not sure where you’re heading next, meeting all kinds of different people, it’s some experience. It changes you as a person. It alters your state of consciousness. I’ve been lucky to get so many songs out of it.
JW: Presumably, you enjoyed your fair share of women, drink and drugs along the way?
RB: Yup, all the above and plenty of it. Believe me, we were having a fucking blast. It was balls to the wall extremity every night of the week. It was a wild and reckless kind of life. There was nothing to stop us. It’s not like any of us had any responsibilities to speak of. We’d successfully got rid of every responsibility we could think of. We didn’t even possess a phone between us.
In a way we felt like a punk rock band in terms of not giving a shit about society and any of its rules. We were so far removed from any kind of nine-to-five existence and that felt good. At the time, however gruelling it got, I could tell myself that I wasn’t spending my days mending some rich guy’s fence for a few lousy bucks. We kind of made a pact where we agreed that we’d go on making music, whatever. Even if we made fifty bucks a night for the rest of our lives, that was OK. So long as we could afford to eat and have a good time. We’d have happily gone on like that, playing the same old dives, until we dropped dead. Come to think of it, had we carried on with that life much longer we almost certainly would have dropped dead.
JW: Were you still riding bulls at this stage?
RB: Oh yeah. I was still riding bulls in 2003. Then came a night when I realised I’d been booked to play in a bar but I’d also been booked to do a rodeo 200 miles away. One of them had to give. I decided to do the gig. It’s like I decided there and then that music was going to be the thing and the rodeo was going to be a thing of the past. I’d kind of grown out of it.
JW: Didn’t you spend some time busking in Paris?
RB: Yeah. In 2004, I decided to join Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which was popular in France for some reason. I had a friend in Texas who’d been involved with it. He asked me if I’d like to work on the show. I sent off an audition tape, showing me riding horses and stuff like that, and I got invited over to Disneyland Paris. My friend bought me a one-way plane ticket. When I turned up there, they casually announced that there wasn’t a job for me after all. I was fucked, basically. I was down to my last couple of dollars. I didn’t know anyone in Paris. I was walking around Disneyland trying to figure out what to do. This guy taps me on the shoulder. He’s a big Indian guy with warpaint and feathers in his hair. For a second I thought I was hallucinating. He said, “I heard what happened with your job. Do you need a place to stay?” So I ended up staying at his apartment for a while with all these other guys. Every day I’d busk in the subways or the parks until I saved enough to pay for my flight home.
Click here to read part two
Ryan Bingham plays 02 Academy, London, on 24th June and Hyde Park, London, on 25th June. His three albums are available on Lost Highway.
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