Crazy Heart: Ryan Bingham On Riding Bulls, Racing Mice And Raising Hell, Part-Two

Ryan Bingham regales me with tales of his uproarious hell-raising, working with Jeff Bridges and explains how he managed to emerge from rank oblivion to become music’s next big thing.
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JW: What was the big turning-point in your fortunes?

RB: I guess things started to change when I wrote my first good song, Southside Of Heaven. Until then I was just writing goofy shit about rodeos and travelling around. I felt totally alone at the time and the song was written as a kind of therapy. The words just seemed to pour out of me. “When I die, Lord/Oh won’t you put my soul up on a train…” I didn’t even imagine it was a song that would connect with anybody else. But that song turned it all around for me. It felt like I finally escaping. I realised that writing songs was the best way from me to get away from the world or make some sense of my own life. I finally had a song and I hung onto it like it was the most precious thing, something I had to protect with my life. After that I had a plan which was really just to keep writing songs and put them out there.

Another big turning-point was landing a deal with Lost Highway. That was a word of mouth thing. An A&R person heard about us and came to see us play in Austin. A week later they wanted us to sign for the label. Instead of dying, we got lucky. Suddenly we had a little cash. We could afford proper equipment, including guitars and drums that actually worked. We could afford to fix our car if it broke down. After the deal we realised we had to get our shit together. It was kind of terrifying for me because getting organised on any level wasn’t what I did. Marc Ford (ex-Black Crowes) who produced our first album (Mescalito) was the guy who taught me how to play with my band. He was the guy who put an electric guitar in my hands for the first time. Suddenly all these doors were opening up and we knew for sure that we weren’t wasting our time. At last it seemed that we could actually make a life out of this. After grinding away all that time, we suddenly had an album out, we were getting reviews, playing better places, it felt like we were accomplishing something.

These were places where people went to get fucked up and fight, y’know.

At the same time, a lot of things stayed just the same. Even after we got the record deal and started putting albums out, it in no way resembled a serious career. We had this agent who clearly didn’t understand how to read a map. So he’d book us to play Los Angeles one night. The following night we’d be booked to play Birmingham, Alabama. That’s some drive, man, for the sake of a couple of hundred dollars at the end of it. It got to the point where I bought him a wall-sized map of the United States. I pinned it up in his office and drew some straight lines on it. We had a record out and it was getting some good attention. But we were still being booked into the kind of places you wouldn’t believe. Low-down dives were the only venues we played. We were playing to crowds who weren’t really out to hear music. We were more like the jukebox in the corner. These were places where people went to get fucked up and fight, y’know. We quickly learned how to play fast and loud. It was often violent. Mostly it was the women fighting among themselves. That’s how it would start. Then the boyfriends would try to break it up. Then the boyfriends would start on each other. After that it would turn into a fucking madhouse, like something out of a bad western. All this would be going on as we were playing. It would usually kick off four or five songs into our set.

JW: What was your worst ever gig?

RB: There was one particularly memorable one. Three years ago, just after Mescalito came out, we played in Mississippi, in this dingy little motel lounge by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. We pull up at this place. There was no marquee outside or anything that fancy. There was just this cheap plywood sign. On it was painted the night’s two main attractions. At the bottom there was us. At the top it simply read, “Mice Races.” I was thinking, “That’s a strange name for a band.” We went in to set up our stuff and there was a racetrack set up for the mice to race on. I never figured how that worked because we got out of that shithole before the mice racing began. I imagine they placed some cheese around the track and let the mice get on with it. Or maybe they got the mice smoking crack to get them in a competitive mood. Who knows? I guess I was just thankful that at least they had the decency to hold off on the rodent derby while we were playing.

I remember coming up with the music on the road. A month later I got home and the words just came to me

JW: Do you remember how you came to write The Weary Kind, the song that won you the Oscar?

RB: I’d met the Crazy Heart director, Scott Cooper, for lunch. He gave me a copy of the script and I’d taken it on the road with me. I remember coming up with the music on the road. A month later I got home and the words just came to me. It was written real quick.

JW: Was it always a given that you would perform in the movie?

RB: That happened more by chance. The director had come to see us play in LA. After the show we got talking and he casually mentioned that he was looking for a band to play in the bowling alley sequence. I said, “Look no further. We’ve played bowling alleys along with most other places.” We’d done a few shows where some high school kid rented out the local bowling alley and needed a cheap band to provide some music. So that scene wasn’t exactly a stretch for us. We barely had to act.

JW: Did you get to spend much time with Jeff Bridges during the filming of Crazy Heart?

RB: Yeah, he’s a cool guy, very approachable. We’ve kept in touch. He’s just recorded an album. I went up to his house and recorded a track with him. He’s got a big musical education. He’s a good musician too.

JW: How much did your life changed after Crazy Heart?

RB: It got a lot stranger. Suddenly we’re playing on the Letterman show. Or I’m sitting on a sofa with Whoopi Goldberg. After all those years where I didn’t think we had a chance in hell, all this crazy shit is happening to us. Getting by was the most we ever hoped for and even that seemed far-fetched at times. Now I walk into my living-room and there’s an Oscar on the shelf. How the fuck did that happen? It’s weird but I don’t let any of it overwhelm me. We spent all those years beating it down, barely getting by. It’s hard to forget about that stuff. Whatever is going on now, it’s not changing me, not that I can see. It’s not like I’m going to turn into Mr. Showbiz. It’s interesting to appear on chat shows and stuff like that but it’s the kind of thing I laugh about. It’s not what’s important in my life. The more meaningful spin-off of having some success is being able to do things like go on tour with Willie Nelson. I was listening to his music before I could walk. All through that tour there was a sense of, “Is this actually happening?” It’s like an elaborate fantasy. A couple of years previous, it would have been unimaginable.

JW: Is Willie Nelson’s weed as potent as he claims it is?

RB: Oh yes. I can definitely vouch for that.

I want to protect my songs. I don’t want them devalued.

JW: Has the success of The Weary Kind derailed you in any way?

RB: It might have done but we had to fight that as a band. There was definitely a pressure from certain quarters for us to capitalise and put out an obvious hit album. Luckily we’re on a record label that encourages us to keep doing what we want to do. I want to protect my songs. I don’t want them devalued. If some company comes along and offers me a million bucks to use one of my songs to promote a brand of peanut butter, I’m going to have to pass on that. To take the money would be an insult to all those years I spent fighting to get where I am. I didn’t do it for the money in the first place which was just as well. I’m certainly not going to start doing it now. I want to be noticed for my songs. I don’t want to be known as the guy from the peanut butter ad.

JW: Do you feel that your approach to songwriting is different now?

RB: I’m writing less and less about myself. A lot of my earlier songs were about my experiences of life on the road and my family background. A lot of them were like therapy to me. Until I met my wife, there weren’t too many people I could discuss that stuff with. Songwriting was a way of getting those things off my chest.

Now that I’ve had some success, it’s not that I’m going to be writing songs about being on chat shows. Nobody would be interested, least of all me. If I’m going to write something, record it, then sing it every night, it had better be meaningful to me. Most of my earlier songs were about the personal shit I was going through. If anything my songs have become more observant about other people, other places.

JW: You’re making a decent living at last? What are you biggest extravagances?

RB: I don’t have any. If you look at my career I guess it’s obvious that money has never been a chief motivation for me. I grew up being used to having next to nothing. When I started out on the road on my own it was easier to travel if I didn’t have any possessions. Any stuff I accumulated on the way I’d soon get rid of it all. To this day I still travel light. I was staying with a friend in Austin, Texas. I’d been with the woman who would become my wife for about a year and I’d decided to move out to LA with her. She was saying how I’d need a big trailer to transport all my stuff. Then I turned up with this small trunk. Along with a pile of vinyl records, that was everything I owned and all I needed. I don’t set too much store by possessions. What’s important to me is a place to sleep and some food to look forward to. That’s the start and the end of it really.

I’m a subscriber to the “it’s a sad and beautiful world” school of thought

JW: Would you describe yourself as an optimist?

RB: Most of the time. I guess a lot of people would say that my songs are pessimistic. Maybe some of them don’t sound exactly upbeat. But that’s because I’d sooner not ignore all the shit that goes on in the world. I choose to write about the sadness and all the fucked-up stuff. But I’d like to think that even my more bleaker songs have at least a shaft of hopefulness in there. I guess I’m a subscriber to the “it’s a sad and beautiful world” school of thought and that comes out in the songs.

JW: What’s the biggest misconception about you?

RB: This idea that I’m a country artist. When we first got together as a band people assumed we were a country band. But we just wanted to play rock’n’roll. The truth is that we never really knew what we were playing. I guess you could say that what we do is a mixture of genres and that’s still confusing to people. In terms of radio stations, we’re too country for rock and too rock for country. The Crazy Heart thing has confused things even further. People will have seen the movie and come to a show expecting a straight-down-the-line country band and they get pissed off when they find out we’re something else.

JW: Have you any regrets?

RB: I just wish I’d started reading books a lot earlier than I did. People always assume that my songs have been informed by writers like Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. But I’ve never been much of a reader. Growing up, there were never books around the house. My parents never encouraged me to read. It’s something I missed out on. I kick myself in the ass every day when I think about that. I only really started reading when I met my wife. She’d hand me something like Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye and tell me I ought to take a look at it. I’m having a blast getting into the books I should have read when I was much younger.

JW: Your life seems so much more settled now. Are your hell-raising days completely behind you?

RB: It’s kind of different for me now. I live with my wife in Topanga, LA County. The first house that’s ever had my name on the mailbox. For the first time in my life I’ve got some security and stability. A lot of my life is still spent on the road but it’s a lot easier now. We can tour for a month or two, then take a month off. It’s not constant. We can space it so that we don’t get too burned out. I don’t need to sleep in the back of a truck any longer. These days I’m on a schedule. I know where I’m going to be from one day to the next.

Do I miss the old days? Sure I do. I miss the sense of adventure in waking up in some strange town and not knowing where the hell I’m going to end up that night. I miss the danger that comes with living that way. Looking at it now I know that I couldn’t do it over again. The sense of adventure only lasts so long. It becomes a hard way to live, too damn hard.

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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