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By Drew Ailes
With a voice as raw-boned as they come, Ryan Bingham embodies downtrodden characters riding a boxcar into the great beyond. The alt-country troubadour is 29, but he sounds more wizened than a man who's lived twice as hard for twice as long. Then again, Bingham would have to possess an old soul to have penned "The Weary Kind": The theme for the film Crazy Heart won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
These days, listeners are hungry for Bingham's brand of dark, on-the-ground storytelling — just look at Jamey Johnson, another beardy critics' darling. And while reviewers have seemed surprised that Bingham's latest, understated release, Junky Star, doesn't go Hollywood, isn't that exactly what the public — and the Academy — asked for? B-Sides spoke with Bingham via phone from California last month, soon after "Kind" again won big, this time at the Americana Awards.
B-Sides: Talk about working on the film Crazy Heart, and how the song "The Weary Kind" came about.
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Ryan Bingham: Originally, the director Scott Cooper called me up, and we just went and had lunch one day, and he gave me the script and said, "If you're inspired to write anything, let me know." So I started working on "The Weary Kind" song and sent it to him, and he got me in touch with T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, and me and T-Bone started finishing up the song and that was pretty much it.
Listening to Junky Star, the tone is world-weary, like you might still be embodying the Crazy Heart character Bad Blake. Do you write songs with characters in mind? Or is it your voice?
I pretty much kinda write everything from the same place. Songwriting was always kind of a way of venting for me and getting stuff off my chest.
I'm thinking of a song like "Hallelujah," which is narrated by a man who's killed in the first verse. Where does a song like that come from?
Sometimes, the songs aren't really about anything in particular; they can be about a lot of different things. That song — I met this guy in Chicago one night, this homeless guy on the street and had a little altercation with this guy. And that kinda started that and a couple other things I been through in my life, and stuff that you live through and experience, and people that you meet. Putting all that stuff together in the songs.
Junky Star has a slower pace than your other albums, with several stripped-down ballads. Were you thinking about this when making the album?
I really wanted to make it a lot more stripped down, try to let the songs stand on their own. And just have the guys that go on the road and that I play with night after night — just have the four of us play on the record and keep it really simple.
What did T-Bone Burnett bring to the recording of the album?
He brings a lot of different things. I mean, his experience [and] his vast knowledge of music is extraordinary. He really creates a wonderful vibe and atmosphere in the studio for you to sit down and record music. [He] takes a lot of the distractions away and really lets you concentrate on just working on the songs. It was really a great thing.
Now that it's been six months since winning the Oscar, do you have any perspective on it? What sort of lasting impact it may or may not have on your career?
I'm not sure. It's been an honor to win that award and everything, but at the end of the day, it goes back to real life. Back in the van with the band and making music and playing on the road.
You're defined as alt-country. I wondered if you relate at all to the mainstream country that's out there. I imagine with all the exposure you received from the movie and from people in different places, there might have been some pressure to change your image in some way.
Oh yeah, there's tons of that going around. [Laughs] People pull at you from all different angles, but that's not really a world I want to be part of. I enjoy the songwriting and getting to play the kind of music we like to play. I'm not really hip to the idea of wearing a rhinestone jacket and whatever the fuck that is.