Ryan Bingham

Yes, Ryan Bingham grew up in the South. Texas, mostly. But there wasn’t much in the
way of consistency to his upbringing, other than his family’s chronic existence on the
wrong side of the tracks.
He was born in the small city of Hobbs, New Mexico, hard up against the Texas
Panhandle. He grew up in the west Texas oil fields, then spent time as a teenage rodeo
cowboy in towns all across the state. Along the way, he absorbed the Cajun culture of
western Louisiana, the hardcore hip-hop favored by his Houston friends, and the border
songs of the Mexican immigrants. Until he moved to California in 2007, he never lived in
any one place for more than two years.
From the beginning of his recording career, with “Mescalito,” Bingham has defied
easy classification. As a rising country star, he ranged from Woody Guthrie-style folk
songs and Spanish-language balladry to gritty hard rock. It’s all American music; fittingly,
he was honored as the Americana Music Association’s 2010 Artist of the Year.
He’s enjoyed thrilling highs and suffered debilitating lows, sometimes all at once.
While his career was taking off – he won both an Oscar and a Grammy for “The Weary
Kind,” the theme song he wrote for the film “Crazy Heart” – he was coping with the tragic
deaths of his mother, an alcoholic, and his father, who took his own life.
The losses put Bingham in a dark tunnel, and it took a while to crawl his way out.
With the help of his wife, Anna Axster, and some inner soul-searching, Bingham has
come back into the light. “American Love Song,” the third studio album from the AxsterBingham indie label (after 2012’s “Tomorrowland” and 2015’s “Fear and Saturday
Night”), takes all his influences – both musical and experiential – and unites them in
Ryan Bingham’s best, most fully realized record to date.
“I always really struggled with my identity – who I was, where I was from,”
Bingham explains of his long, deliberate pursuit of wholeness. “I always had my cowboy
hat with me, but at the same time, you adapt to your environment.” Being the new kid in
town usually meant unwanted attention, and having to fight to defend yourself.
“You’d blend in as a means of safety,” he recalls. “Now that I’ve grown up, I’ve
shed those insecurities. I realized my identity is a blend of different hats, different shoes,
different pants.”
The new album finds Bingham honing his creativity on two distinct levels, the
personal and the cultural. He co-produced it with Charlie Sexton, the superb Austin
guitarist who has played for years in Bob Dylan’s touring band. “American Love Song”
was recorded at Arlyn Studios and Public Hi-Fi in Austin with additional recording at
Matter Music in Los Angeles.
From the opening track – the spry “Jingle and Go,” which recounts his early
years as an itinerant open-mic performer working, like the great Texas bluesmen before
him, for tips – to the closer, “Blues Lady,” a tribute to Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin,
Bingham’s own late mother, and all the other strong women this country has produced,
the album combines autobiographical reflection with a bittersweet celebration of our
collective spirit in the face of enduring difficulties.
There are songs for Anna. “Pontiac” brings a Stones-y crunch to the tale of their
meeting and the wild early years they spent on the road together. “Lover Girl,” which
features a sweet steel guitar, reveals a more tender side of their relationship: “The scars
upon my heart won't hide, but now I found your sparklin' eyes."
Musically, “Situation Station” is built on a comfortable lope and a few bright
chords. But that’s deceiving. The song is the first of several on the album that take a
hard line on the state of the nation, with a scathing verse about a leader “ridin’ on the
back of the poor man, selling them lies.”
For years, Bingham says, he’s worn his political heart on his sleeve, standing
against various kinds of social injustice. It’s a direct product of his own underprivileged
upbringing, he says. But there have been those with differing perspectives who’ve failed
to notice where he was coming from until they’d been sucked in by his music.
“I’m always trying to find ways to use songs to bring people together,” he says.
“But the way things are right now, the things our president is saying – I think being
complicit is not the way to go.”
He’s speaking his mind, and right now he has a lot to say. “Blue,” for instance, is
a beautiful storm cloud of a song about Bingham’s own battle with depression after the
deaths of his parents. But it’s also, he says, a commentary on the persistent taboo about
seeking mental health care in this country.
“Wolves” deals with the painful memories of his youth and those inevitable
confrontations with the next school bully. But it’s also a response to Bingham’s emotions
when the March for Our Lives students, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, had
to contend with men and women questioning their integrity on social media.
“Grown people speaking to kids that way, that really bothered me,” he says.
Built on a hypnotic, bluesy electric guitar riff, “Hot House” imagines an unjustly
imprisoned young man whose life has been effectively cut short. “What Would I’ve
Become” is a twang anthem of sorts, one that asks a universal question. What if the
singer had stayed put in one small town? If he hadn’t taken a chance on life?
Bingham’s growing concerns about where we’re at as a people come to a head
on “America,” the album’s somber, instantly memorable signature song. Is there still an
American dream, he asks, his voice rising to a poignant pitch.
These 15 new songs from one of American music’s most distinct voices answer
that simple question with a resounding “Yes!”

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