In the song, “The Wandering” off his new album Junky Star, Ryan Bingham sings in his signature gravel shredded vocals:
Take a look inside
If youre so inclined
Just leave some time
For the wandering
Here Bingham speaks of his experience with the many temporary distractions that have interrupted his lifelong journey through America. Whether it was a few months in a new city, an hour in a crumbling watering hole off a desert highway, a few weeks digging holes on a construction site, or a night at the Oscars, Bingham has always had his heart set on getting back out on that never-ending road.
For Bingham, staying the course on the road to nowhere has led him to be a bull rider, a bar crooner, a co-headliner with Willie Nelson, and an Academy Award winner. Its also made this 29-year-old wise beyond his years.
On his third album, Junky Star, Bingham details the woes of the beautiful losers that hes crossed paths with over his years traversing the country. During our discussion, he emphasized the importance of singing about what you know and writing songs that are a reflection of what you see around you. In a time of uncertainty and economic depression that has devastated the lives of millions, Junky Star introduces us to characters that struggle to find their way in America today. As our country desperately tries to figure out who we are, Bingham is the voice of that unsettling man in the mirror.
Ryan was gracious enough to chat with us this week about life on the road, his massive year, the Geto Boys, and his aspirations in the field of marine biology.
Where are you today?
And thats home for you, right?
This has been a huge year for you with Crazy Heart, an Oscar win, and a new album, Junky Star. Now you guys are about to head out for a tour. Have you been taking some time to relax before you hit the road?
Yeah, Ive been trying to just lay low as much as I can. But, we were actually on the road last month doing a tour on the west coast. Were leaving again next week for a couple of months. Well be going all over the place and then off to Europe in November.
How do you like touring in Europe?
Touring in Europe is so different than it is here in the States. We went over there for the first time 3 years ago and we were really surprised with how many people came out to see us. We had just come off of playing small clubs over here that were really just bars and what not. To go over there and have 300-400 people in the crowd standing in a room all silent and really listening, it was great.
So what percentage of questions nowadays have to do with Crazy Heart or “The Weary Kind?”
Yeah, I get a lot of em (Laughs), its been crazy this past year.
Well, Ill try to keep them to a minimum, but do you mind if I ask a few?
No man, of course not, go ahead.
So, youve probably written hundreds of songs. Is it surreal that one song (The Weary Kind) of those hundreds can have such a profound impact on your life?
Oh yeah, for sure. I mean it was all just so crazy to see one song take off like that all of a sudden. Its amazing what can happen when you get the big machine behind it. You really see whats possible and what a big impact it can have. Its cool though; its a whole different way to express yourself. I didnt really know much about film and I still dont. Ive been trying to figure that all out.
Do you have interest in staying involved with the film industry?
Yeah, definitely. My wife is a filmmaker and is working on a feature film right now. So, Ive been working on some music for that. I think Ill try to stay involved, maybe learn a little more and just see what comes up.
As far as acting goes, was it always the plan for you to be in the film?
Yeah, that was actually not part of the original plan. The director came out to see us play one night in LA and afterward was like, I need a young band in the film to play in a bowling alley. And I was like, look no further, thats what we do. We didnt have to do much acting; we just had to be ourselves.
Have you actually played in a bowling alley before?
Yeah, we have.
Junky Star certainly isnt an uplifting album and deals a lot with people who are down and out. Yet, youve had so many positive things happening in your life lately. Where did these sad songs come from?
To me, songwriting has always been a way of venting and getting stuff off my chest. Traveling across the country in times like these, you really see the condition that this country is in and that the people are in. You see people in really difficult circumstances and I can relate to them in a way. You know? I just try to describe the things that I see going on all around me. If what you see is a lot of people going through pain or in desperate times then that makes its way into the songs. You have to write about what you see and what you know.
Junky Star is the 3rd record in 3 years. Are you writing constantly out on the road?
The songwriting goes in spurts. Sometimes Ill sit down and write 3 to 4 songs in a day. Sometimes Ill go for a month without writing anything. I really dont try to sit around with a pen and paper and write things down. I try to just let it come to me.
Ive been a big fan since my buddy sent me your Dead Horses record in 2006. Its been fun to watch your career take off. I realized you were really making your way into the mainstream when I turned on the TV and saw you flanked on a couch by Whoopi Goldberg and Barbara Walters. Was playing The View the strangest gig of your life?
(laughs) Yeah, Yeah it might have been. All that stuff, you know the TV stuff, the press and everything. That shit was crazy.
But seriously, with all of that exposure this past year, whats the one thing you got to do that you never thought youd be doing 3 years ago?
This past month, in September, we got to do a tour with Willie Nelson. That was something I never thought would be possible. Being able to stand there on the side of the stage and watch him playing every night. It was crazy man. I grew up listening to him and I never imagined wed be out there on tour with him.
You spent time on the rodeo circuit before you found your way into music. If you werent doing either of those, what do you think youd like to be doing?
Well, I dont know that I always really thought that Id be doing music. But, now its like I cant think of anything else that Id really ever want to do. When I started playing music it was a way out. All growing up, I had to have a day job that was something I knew I didnt want to be doing for very long. For a while I was doing construction and I realized I liked the feeling of a guitar in my hands better than a shovel. I could either make $50 digging holes or I could get a gig playing tunes at a bar. It was a pretty easy choice (laughs).
It was also a way to get out on the road and travel. Music was all I needed. If you could make enough money to eat, you were fine. You could travel around to all these different places just doing what you could do to survive. Now, Id probably be more interested in going back to school more than anything. Before I didnt really have a choice of whether or not to go to school because I had to work. I had to make money. But now that I have the opportunity I think Id like to do that maybe at some point.
What would you study?
Well, I grew up in the desert but Ive always fascinated by the ocean. So I think Id like to study to become a marine biologist or something.
You and I are the same age. Im always interested to hear what other people who grew up in my era were listening to. Do you remember the first record you bought?
Oh man, I dont know if I remember what the first record I bought was. But, I was living with my Uncle when I was 12 or 13 and he had piles of records from 60s and 70s that I really got into. I was into a lot of stuff from that era, from Bob Marley to Bob Wills, Dylan, The Stones, Neil Young, Waylon, Willie Nelson, I loved all those guys.
You can hear a lot of those guys in your songs. Is there anything that you were ever into that people would be surprised to hear?
Yeah, there was a time when I lived down in Houston and at that time, in the 80s, there was all that hip-hop stuff coming out of there. Groups like the Geto Boys, I was into that stuff. I dont think a lot of people would really suspect that (laughs).
Youve traveled around the country for most of your adult life. Junky Star is full of stories about people youve met during your travels. Now youre settled in CA, do you miss being on the road? Does that impact your songwriting?
Well, we really still get plenty of time out on the road. As far as it impacting songwriting, I think it definitely does. You write about what you know about. So its kind of inevitable that you write about where you go and what you see. When I was living in West Texas, Id write more about that. Now that Im living here, Im writing about what I see here. But, were always traveling all around, going coast to coast, and to Europe and Australia. You get a chance to meet people from all sides of the globe and hear their stories. All of that comes out in the songs. But as much as I like getting back out on the road and seeing everything, its nice to have a place to come home to.
You spend 90% of your time not actually playing live when youre on the road. What do you do to pass the time between shows?
Thats for sure (laughs). Most of the time youre in the van and driving or youre sitting somewhere just waiting around. Honestly, thats what it comes down to. Theres driving in the van and then theres waiting around. You get to a point where you just cant sit in the van for another second. We call it van madness. Well try to get out to see whatever city were in though. You cant just sit around the hotel all the time, youve got to get out there when you can.
Whats the best way to bounce back after a big night on the town?
You just gotta grit your teeth and power through.
Well, youve got 2 sold out shows coming up in Chicago, we cant wait to see you there. I will say, a few years ago when you were doing the first national tour, you stiffed Chicago. Do you have hard feelings toward the Windy City?
No way man. We always enjoy coming to Chicago, seriously. Were really excited to be out there. If we didnt play there its only because none of the promoters knew who we were. At the time when we were first traveling around, you had to fight for every gig you got.
Well, its been a huge year for you. Any idea what the future holds?
Dont really know what the future holds. Were just excited to get back out on the road for this tour. After that all I know is well keep making music because thats what we do. Hopefully well get in the studio and start working on a new record in the Spring.