Even after Ryan Bingham won just about every award under the sun for his work with T. Bone Burnett on “Weary Kind” for Crazy Heart, he didn’t get comfortable atop his metaphorical mountain of success. It’s just not in his nature, musically or otherwise.
“It wasn’t like I suddenly had a mansion on the hill or a Cadillac,” Bingham tells me from his home in the wilds of Topanga Canyon, Northwest of Los Angeles, his light Southwestern twang dusting every word. “It was back to the backyard, building fires, BBQin’ and just fuckin’ off.”
Well, to be more specific, it was back on the road with The Dead Horses, touring on the coattails of his award-season sweeps in lieu of the late summer release of his third album Junky Star in 2010. And while Junky Star certainly was a very good album, it lacked the rugged rawness of Mescalito and Roadhouse Sun, his first two records which transported us to the beautiful and empty desert interstates, cozy and worn Western bars, ragged and stale motel rooms in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe everyone was suddenly expecting too much of Bingham, since he now had a mantel full of trophies to legitimize his talents, all before the age of 30. That sort of success can just flat wear a man down.
“Things were pretty crazy around that time. There are a lot of people after you, trying to get you to do different things,” he remembers. “Bars and clubs and whatnot were never really my scene, but I still had to fight for my time, to find a way to get back out on my own planet.”
This may be one of the reasons for Bingham’s move to his Topanga hideout. While writing and composing his latest album Tomorrowland, out this week through his own label Axster Bingham Records, Bingham spent a lot of time in a tent in the Santa Monica Mountains, riding horses and, in his words, “keeping his head straight.” However, the coastal terrain of Southern California doesn’t necessarily reflect the arid high desert of New Mexico and Texas where Bingham spent most of his teens drifting around on the rodeo circuit, earning that hard living so viscerally audible in his voice. These rougher years of his youth were wrung out in those first two albums; Bingham seems to long for them, in a creative sense. I ask him if he misses the rugged, rough life he had trekking from town to town looking for gig, before he found so much success. Sometimes they’d be stuck in a town for three or four days before they had enough money to move onto the next one, playing in people’s backyards to pay for food and gas. Struggle births creativity, and Bingham acknowledges this.
“I miss the adventure of those times for sure, because you never knew what was going to happen next,” he says. “You were forced to go out and meet people and that would usually lead to some real interesting extremes. Sometimes you’re in the strangest, most awkward situations, and other times you end up in the coolest places on Earth.”
For example—the story flowing out of him like a giddy boy talking about meeting Batman—Bingham remembers leaving Del Rio, Texas at two in the morning after playing a New Year’s Eve party, en route to Park City, Utah, a solid twenty-hour drive with the wind behind him. Right around the Grand Canyon, the transmission on their Suburban dropped out and they found themselves stranded in the desert with the New Year’s sunrise, cold as hell and not a car in sight. After a lonely, freezing couple of hours of nodding on and off in the suburban, they got a call from some friends who were driving across the country in an RV on their honeymoon. The love birds happened to be in the area, so they cruised by, picked up Bingham and his band and drove them to Park City, Suburban in tow. Over the week it took to fix the Suburban’s transmission, he and his band played shows in and around Park City, partying down while they stayed at a hotel that was virtually empty due to the slow ski season. With their truck fixed and a little bit of money in their pockets, they set off to Los Angeles with no idea where they were going to stay or what they were going to do when they arrived.
That night, while playing a random house party, they met some women who were in the art world in New York City. One woman invited Bingham and the band to play her house party the following weekend in Manhattan, that she’d be in touch. Sure enough, she called a few days later with an offer of plane tickets, fifteen hundred bucks for the show and a hotel room for a week—considering the whole band of tumbleweeds had never made more than three hundred dollars for a gig and none of them had ever been to New York City, they were ecstatic. A day later, they flew to New York and told the cabbie where to go, glued to the windows the whole ride. They arrived at the party, being held in a lavish brownstone with limousines parked in a line along the curb, women in flowing gowns and men dressed in tuxedos—Donna Karan’s home, as it turned out. Bingham was wearing a cowboy hat, Wranglers, and a t-shirt with a mustard stain on it. When he and the band were finally let in, they set up in the corner of the packed party and told to play only one song, like they were an art exhibition. Bingham remembered sitting there on the makeshift stage amidst East Coast American elite thinking about shivering in a broken-down Suburban just two weeks before. Talk about one extreme to the next.
“I like the stability and the home life these days, because it gives me time,” Bingham says to close the story. He likes to do that, give some sort of conclusion to each charming spurt of thought. “When I have time, the songs come.”
Bingham spent more time crafting Tomorrowland then he ever had on an album and it shows. From the first hypnotic notes of “Beg for Broken Legs” to the elegant country minuet “Too Deep to Fill” that escorts listeners on to a hopeful future, there is an impressive variety of music on this record. Bingham flexes as many of his rock ’n’ roll talents as his country songwriting skills, with a few beautiful, politically tinged ballads to boot. “Western Shore” is a personal favorite, a country song that has been raided and ravaged by good old-fashioned hard rock and roll, like the sea slamming endlessly against the California coast—and winning.
“A lot of this record is about a new start or just starting over for me in a way,” Bingham explains. “I had all the awards and trophies I’d won scattered in different rooms of my house that first year and I finally realized I couldn’t just sit around and look at them all day anymore.”
Now they’re in a box in his attic.
Photo by Anna Axster