Ryan Bingham is holed up in New York City before an impending snowstorm. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter is on tour to promote his new album, Fear and Saturday Night, and it so happens that he’s in Manhattan amidst some of the most impassioned protests the country has seen in years; two days ago, a grand jury handed down their decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Over the past four or five nights, we’ve been in New York City and Washington, D.C.,” says Bingham over the phone. “Seeing the protests in all these different cities every night, it’s like, wow. I had a friend of mine, he said, ‘You’re just like an artist, you’re so sensitive. Everything makes you cry.’ But it does, I don’t know what it is. This really hit me hard.”
This sensitivity, it should be noted, is coming from a man who could just as easily have become a swaggering, truck-commercial cowboy. Bingham, after all, grew up poor in West Texas after his family moved there from New Mexico. He was riding bulls to earn a living by the age of 17, having already left home to fend for himself. His mother was an alcoholic; his father later committed suicide.
But instead of growing angry and silent, Bingham channeled his rage, sorrow and keen-to-the-point-of-painful observations into his music.
For years, he slung his songs in weather-beaten honky-tonks around the Southwest. Then, in 2009, he caught his break when he penned “The Weary Kind,” the theme song for the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart. The track earned him both an Oscar and a Grammy, and vaulted him from a scruffy, boot-stomping kid to an internationally celebrated artist.
Immediately, there was pressure for Bingham to go mainstream. “It was all the stuff you would expect,” he says. “It’s business in general; they really wanted to kind of capitalize on an opportunity.”
But rather than fall into the Hollywood trap or become part of the Nashville hit-making machine, Bingham and his wife, filmmaker Anna Axster, started their own record label — the aptly named Axster Bingham Records — in 2012.
That same year, Bingham released the racially charged Tomorrowland, inspired by social injustices he saw on the road. “I still grew up in Texas, and really had to learn a lot about that stuff; I was angry, upset and trying to process a lot of it,” he says.
In 2013, he and Axster produced A Country Called Home, a dark coming-of-age film for which Axster wrote the screenplay and Bingham composed the music.
Now, the chisel-jawed songwriter is getting reflective. In writing Fear and Saturday Night — scheduled for release on January 20, 2015 — Bingham went off the grid, cocooning himself in a trailer in the California mountains. While there, he revisited some long-since scabbed-over emotional wounds, and the resulting album stares down his past — including his parents' deaths — and looks towards the future.
On “Broken Heart Tattoos,” the album’s first single, Bingham confronts the impending possibility of parenthood. The effect is something of a mid-tempo lullaby, in which he speaks to his unborn child with the shy hopefulness of a man who’s emerged, intact, from facing down his demons.
“A lot of [my songwriting] was kind of a form of therapy, especially as a young man,” he says. “It was a way to get things off my chest. It’s definitely changed as I’ve gotten older.”
Bingham, Axster and the couple’s dog, Boodreaux (who makes regular appearances on Bingham’s social media feeds) have now settled in the canyons just northwest of L.A. The city, he says, provides no shortage of inspiration. “It’s one of the reason I really love living in Los Angeles,” he says. “You get bored of one spot, you drive around to another. You can go up to the mountains or down into the city.
"It’s all right there,” he adds. “It’s all at your fingertips.”
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Ryan Bingham will play at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Dec. 4, 2014.