An Interview with Ryan Bingham
There are some moments in life that offer sheer untouched perfection. The last glimpse of the Aztec sun as it sinks gold and shimmering behind the Mexican hills of a breathless evening in late October. The first pulls of life into the virgin lungs of a newborn calf, seen only by the morning’s dew. But for a man named Ryan Bingham, at least while gripping his six-string, that kind of perfection, epic and rugged flows forth as melodious as the beat of the mariachis that call so many of his songs home. Joe Ely has said of Bingham that he “comes from a dusty place, one that is not pretty, and yet there is a lot of romance there.” His is an old soul, far older than his 26 years and far more lived in, but the music that finds its way to the surface is cut from a place so pure that it could only come from a life truly lived. The songs that pour forth are heart breaking and heroic, brilliantly blended with a sound that can only be described as a guitar at its very best. As I sat with him outside the old dance hall in Luckenbach, a cigarette in his hand, and a smile on his young face, he told me a few things about the man behind the music
This has been a big year for you so far, kicking it off in Steamboat, then you guys headed out to Europe for a few weeks, Gruene Hall last night with Joe Ely, and then standing here tonight in Luckenbach, TX where a lot of folks would say it all began...how has all that been for you?
Well, it definitely was for me [where it all began]. Man, it’s gone so fast. You just kind of reflect on everything, and soak it in. Just every day you’re on the road and going and going and going. It all just kinda gets to building just a little bit more every day, so by the time you get to playing these gigs, you don’t really realize what’s happened, you know.
So you said for you this is kind of where everything started, what’s that about?
I used to come out here and play guitar in the old store and some really good friends of mine...a guy named Greg Gorman used to hang out here. Guys like Donny Price, just hang around and play guitars in that store, you know.
Well, you definitely feel like you’re in the presence of greatness out here.
Man, there’s a lot of souls running around out here.
You’ve been pretty much everywhere, all over the place, but you talk a lot about west Texas. Growing up in a ranching family in Texas myself, I was taught early the value of a hard day’s work. That’s something you seem to know a little bit about.
Man, trying to drive a t-post into solid caliche rock, make you feel it in your hands (laughs).
You’ve actually done a little day work on some ranches?
(Smiling) I’ve done my fair share, yeah.
You talk some about how your dad taught you to let the hard times in your life roll off your back, to keep plugging and plugging whenever life gets you down. How have your own experiences led you to live your life like that, and make it known in your songs?
Well it’s no different than really a lot of people in the world, you know. If you want to see somebody who has hard times, you look next door, your neighbor’s got em, too, you know. It’s kind of like...everybody’s got em! (laughs)
Where do you draw your inspiration from musically?
Everything, just living, you know. Just looking around and seeing and feeling everything that’s going on around you.
It takes a lot to write a song that people can feel and relate to.
Well, with music, you just feel it on the inside before you feel it on the outside.
Going back to Steamboat, how many years have you been playing there?
Well, I’ve been there like three or four years, but it was really my second year with the band. The first couple of years I went, I just had a guitar and got to playing. John Dickson, who puts that thing on, he’s just an incredible guy. Before anybody would really even give me a gig he was like “hey man, come up and play this festival,” and kind of gave me a chance to play up there. Got to play at the Bear River and got to play acoustic for some folks. You know, every other year I’d come back, he’d keep on just kind of pushing me up to a bigger stage with some more people and kind of let me grow a little bit as I was learning.
So in a way he’s been a really big influence.
Yeah, you know, he gave me a chance, when there wasn’t a whole lot of people that really would.
That show in Steamboat was really incredible, such high energy. Seemed more like one long song telling a story than a normal set list, going from song to song. Does that happen a lot?
Yeah, sometimes we just kind of roll, you know. Adam Odor was playing bass with us and we just kind of rolled into town, we didn’t have a bass player. He was like “yeah, man, I’ll come play with ya’ll tonight.” So he didn’t even know any of the songs, we were like “well let’s just jam! Just start throwin’ em out there.” Yeah, so we hadn’t rehearsed or anything, we just got up and started playing.
I guess shows like that just happen sometimes. They can be better when they just happen and nothing is really planned. How do you guys bring that kind of intensity-that energy level to every show?
Well, when you get on the stage and it’s time to play, it’s time to play. It’s kind of like rodeoing, you know, no matter how tired you are, how sick you feel, or whatever - hung over, when you crawl down on the back of that bull, when they open that gate, you either ride or you fall off. You gotta turn it on.
It’s true that you did some semi-pro rodeoing?
Oh, yeah. I had my pro card for a couple of years, but I was more like a weekend warrior. I had kind of a day job during the week.
Where was that?
All over, really. Mainly in Texas and New Mexico. I went to a lot of open rodeos and amateur bull riding.
You did that before you got into music?
Yeah I kept going to junior rodeos, you know the AJRA.
That explains some things.
Yeah, I got me an AJ buckle! (Laughs, pulling up his shirt to show off the buckle.)
Awesome. Well, where are ya’ll headed from here?
We got a couple days off, and we’re gonna play South by Southwest, so we’ll be in Austin all week. And then we go to Manhattan, KS and Denver, CO. Then we’ll go out to California for three or four weeks and we’re gonna record another record.
So when’s the new record out?
Ah, it’ll be next year, spring probably.
What’s on the bill for that?
(Smiles) Oh, I got some surprises. I’ve been talking to some friends like Joe Ely and Patty Griffin.
You got to play with Joe Ely last night. How was that?
Oh, it was great man. We played with him in Houston the night before, and actually I broke down on the side of the rode, halfway between Houston and New Braunfels. Tristan, my road manager, came and picked me up and we got back to New Braunfels at like 8:55 and we went on stage at 9:00. We got in, and just walked right on stage and started playing.
That’s great man, well good luck on the record, and tonight’s show, the rest of the year. It’s gonna be great.
Yeah, well thanks, it should be fun.
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