Ryan Bingham isn't a country singer. While he's dabbled in the tones of roots and country, he's a rock star at this point in his career. Sure, many people know the Los Angeles-based former rodeo cowboy from his celebrity-making, Oscar-winning tune "The Weary Kind" from the movie Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges also won an Oscar for portraying an old-school country singer looking for a new start. It's a mistake to confuse Bridges' Bad Blake for Bingham's artistic state.
His recent self-released LP Tomorrowland is an earth-rattling record that keeps his cowboy-song past in the rear view mirror. Bingham brings his new set of tunes to the Palladium on Wednesday, October 3, so we grabbed a few minutes last week to speak with him about his early days in Dallas, dropping F-bombs on Leno and being married to an artist who just happens to be his manager.
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Is this the album that makes people quit calling you a country singer? I think I could sing death metal and I'll still be a country singer to certain people [laughing]. As long as I occasionally wear a cowboy hat, I can sing reggae or metal and that's just how it'll be. I'm not really sure how it works that way, but that's how it is, I guess.
When you performed on the Tonight Show a couple of weeks ago, you played "Guess Who's Knockin'," which has several angry F-bombs in it. Why did you choose that song? It's funny because the people at the show were the ones who requested that song specifically. We weren't going to pick that one, and we were really surprised when they asked us for it. We were like, "Alright, let's fucking do this." I can say it was definitely interesting.
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You've played some of the smallest stages in Dallas, and now you're playing some of the biggest stages across the country. Do you have any memories of your first Dallas performances? It's been a real trip. I remember when I was living in Stephenville, just outside of Fort Worth, and the first real gig I ever got was in Dallas, at this place on Greenville Avenue called the Boar's Nest, which was next to where Poor David's Pub used to be. I opened up for 1100 Springs and I was 19 or 20, and I didn't have a car, so I begged a friend of mine in Stephenville to please drive me to Dallas for this gig. He had to take me early in the day, and when he dropped me off, the bar wasn't even open. Because I was too young, the other bars wouldn't let me in, so I just waited with a bag of clothes and my guitar, and hung out on the street for a bit. I've got some great memories of Dallas, especially because of so many of my early gigs were there.
On that note, there are many people around here that claim to be the person who played your songs on radio first, or gave you a big break before anyone else. Who do you remember as being an early, instrumental supporter of yours in Dallas? I've had great support there, thankfully, but I'd say [former 99.5 KPLX host, currently at 95.9 KFWR The Ranch in Fort Worth] Justin Frazell was one of the first, if not the first, to play my stuff. When all I had were demo recordings, he would play my stuff on his Sunday night Americana show [Live From The Front Porch], and then he would invite me to come play on the show. He was supportive from the very start.
Unlike your last album, Junky Star, which was primarily acoustic and sparse, the new record has a big, epic feel to it. Was that an intentional change? I did plan for that, and it's really because I had been playing more electric guitar over the past couple of years. Junky Star was so stripped down and so many of those songs are so personal and dark. When you're out on the road playing those songs every night, it gets tough to get through all of the sad stuff so often. When it came to the new record, I did think about what it would be like to play the same songs, night after night for months at a time. I wanted it to be fun. We're getting opportunities to play bigger stages and festivals with big audiences, so I wanted to have fun playing the new record live, and to also experiment with the music. I still have a lot to learn about playing the guitar, so I try to stay open to new things. The songs are still personal, but I wanted to have some fun with it all and still take it serious without taking it too seriously. I wanted some real rock and roll.
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Has the new stuff gone over well with the audiences so far? It has, but we're only three shows into the tour. We're still trying to figure out where to dial things in and mix in the older stuff into the set lists so the shows flow well. I know that it's definitely been loud!
It seems as though you've been using social networking to be more visible with the promotion of this record than with the past couple. Is that owed to the fact that you released it on your own new label? We did it this way because things are more accessible and we like that. Lost Highway was a great label for me, and they let me grow slowly without throwing me to the wolves, but we wanted to do this album on our own. For guys like me, who depend on touring more than record sales or radio play, the social media aspect of things is very important. At first, Twitter and YouTube was really strange for me and I was hesitant to learn what it was all about, but once I tried it out, I really liked it. I get to know the fans as much as they get to know more about me. It's nice to go on the road and feel like I'm playing to people I know and not to a room of total strangers. I like letting people know where I come from and why I do what I do. It's really turned into something I didn't expect.
Your wife is a filmmaker and artist in her own right. What's it like for you to have another artistically minded person as your partner in business and in life? She's a lot of things [laughing]. She's my manager and she runs our record label [Axster Bingham Records], too. She did go to film school in London and directing is a real passion for her. She's really opened my eyes to so much. She's traveled around a bunch too, and anytime we're in a new town, she makes a point to take me to some museum or exhibition and all kinds of other cool stuff. She's a great collaborator, too. She does all of our photography and videos, so that's cool because she sees my songs in the earliest stages, so it's very personal to us because we're always looking into each other's worlds.