Music News
3:26 pm
Sun December 29, 2013

From Rodeo To Radio: Ryan Bingham's Wild Ride

Originally published on Sun December 29, 2013 6:43 pm

Ryan Bingham pulls out a rope, lights up a cigarette and lassos a metal bull in his backyard. His house is nestled in a canyon that overlooks the Santa Monica Mountain Range. Out here you'd never know you were just up the road from Los Angeles. Bingham says he feels right at home.

"Takes you back to the source of it every now and then," he says.

Bingham is from the desert town of Hobbs, N.M., along the border of west Texas. He grew up riding bulls, and says roping brings back memories of the rodeo.

"You're in the middle of their back, and they're spinning and jumping, and it's just blowing and going, and the dust is flying and crowd is yelling," he says. "It's like driving down the highway, 90 miles an hour, and throwing the steering wheel out of the window."

He and his friends would pile in a truck and travel all over Texas from one rodeo to another. Every chance he got, he'd pack up and head out into the middle of nowhere.

"My parents were severe alcoholics. When I was about 17 years old, I finally left home," he says. "It wasn't a choice that I made; it was basically like my parents were gone."

His rodeo buddies became family. During those long road trips, Bingham kept a guitar in the backseat of his truck, taking it with him whenever they'd stop in at roadhouses and rundown bars.

"A lot of these little bars we went to were not necessarily places where people went to listen to music," he says. "They were places where people went to get drunk and fight."

But Bingham started making a name for himself, and eventually wrangled up his own band.

"I remember we went to this bar inside of a motel. This was like a really, really rundown motel, and they had mice races. And on the marquee, I remember it said, 'Ryan Bingham and Mice Races Wednesday night.' And it was the strangest thing I think I've ever seen in my life," he says.

He eventually saved up enough money to get to Los Angeles, where he played a little bar near Hollywood. That's where he caught the attention of a film agent.

"I had a couple of homemade demo CDs with some songs on it, and he just started handing them out to people that he knew," Bingham says.

One of the recipients was actor and director Scott Cooper.

"I listened to that music and I said to myself, 'My God, this guy has an incredible voice,'" Cooper recalls. "I said, 'Sounds like Ryan might be the perfect guy.'"

The perfect guy to make a song for Cooper's new film, Crazy Heart, about an aging songwriter named Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges. Cooper asked Bingham if he'd be interested in writing a theme.

"I think at that time, Ryan maybe was living in his truck," Cooper says. "I give him the script and he goes off and the next day, he calls me and he says, 'I think I have something that might interest you.'"

Cooper invited him over to meet T-Bone Burnett, the Grammy Award-winning record producer. He told him to bring his guitar.

"He said, 'Come on. Show us what you got,'" Bingham says.

He picked up his guitar and began to strum his song.

"It immediately finds a place in your soul. And that was just with Ryan strumming the intro," Cooper says. "Once he started singing, his voice is so rich and whiskey-soaked, that you can't even believe it's coming out of this young guy. T-Bone was shaking his head and was just like, 'That's incredible.'"

The song, titled "The Weary Kind," became the theme from Crazy Heart. That year, it won Best Original Song at the 2009 Academy Awards.

Suddenly, Bingham was traveling across the country on press tours and interviews, selling out venues and playing on late-night TV shows. But while he was in the spotlight, he was dealing with a tragedy in his own life.

"At the start of it, my father had committed suicide," Bingham says. "And so even though everything was such a wonderful time and I felt really honored about it, there was still something very big in my life that was going on that was very hard not to think about. It was probably one of the best and worst times of my whole life."

His Oscar isn't in a glass case or anywhere on display. It just stands on the floor in the corner of his bedroom. Bingham walks over and picks it up.

"It's still as heavy as it was when I first held it. Brings back a lot of feelings, that's for sure," he says. "It's still kind of hard for me to wrap my head around a lot of that."

Since his Oscar, he's released two albums and will start recording a new one next month. On Monday, he'll join Willie Nelson on stage at Austin City Limits Live.

His days of riding bulls and living in his truck may be in the past, but the 32-year-old songwriter still has a lot to sing about.

"You just can't muscle your way through some things in life," Bingham says. "You just have to keep your head on your shoulders and dance with it as you go."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Until recently, guitarist Ryan Bingham's life had played out like a country song: long hours on the road, playing small gigs in smoky bars. Then the unthinkable happened. He was discovered and hit the big time. As NPR's Daniel Hajek reports, despite his success, Bingham still sounds at home on the open road.

DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: Ryan Bingham pulls out a rope, lights up a cigarette and lassos a metal bull in his backyard.

RYAN BINGHAM: This is a little trick. They call it the butterfly, and it's kind of the basis for a lot of the little rope tricks and things like that.

HAJEK: His house is nestled in a canyon that overlooks the Santa Monica Mountain Range. Out here, you'd never know you were up the road from Los Angeles. Bingham says he feels right at home.

BINGHAM: Takes you back to the source of it every now and then.

HAJEK: He's from Hobbs, New Mexico, a little desert town along the border of West Texas.

BINGHAM: Out in that part of the world, you had to find ways of entertaining yourself. And...

(LAUGHTER)

HAJEK: This is one of them.

BINGHAM: This is one of them, yeah. You need to sometimes get it together and...

HAJEK: He says roping brings back memories of the rodeo. Bingham grew up riding bulls.

BINGHAM: You're in the middle of their back, and they're spinning and jumping, and then it's just blowing and going, and the dust is flying and crowd is yelling. And it's like driving down the highway 90 miles an hour and throwing the steering wheel out of the window.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY ROADS")

BINGHAM: (Singing) I know I'll never stick around. I'll never lose track of time. Or worry about a little old town or what I might have left behind.

HAJEK: He and his friends would pile in a truck and travel all over Texas, driving along country highways from one rodeo to another.

BINGHAM: Just that experience of being young and out on the road and really free in the wind and - you feel absolutely fantastic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY ROADS")

BINGHAM: (Singing) Out on country roads.

HAJEK: Bingham says every chance he got, he'd pack up and head out into the middle of nowhere.

BINGHAM: My parents were severe alcoholics. And when I was about 17 years old, I finally left home. And it wasn't really necessarily a choice that I made. Like, it was basically my parents were gone.

HAJEK: So his rodeo buddies became family. And during those long road trips, he kept a guitar in the backseat of his truck, taking it with him whenever they'd stop in at roadhouses and rundown bars.

BINGHAM: A lot of these little bars we went to were not necessarily places where people went to listen to music. They were places where people went to get drunk and fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLAR A DAY")

HAJEK: But Bingham started making a name for himself and eventually wrangled up his own band.

BINGHAM: I remember we went to this - it was a bar inside of a motel - and this was like a really, really rundown motel - and they had mice races. And on the marquee, I remember what was said out front, it said: Ryan Bingham and Mice Races, you know, Wednesday night. And it was the strangest thing I think I've ever seen in my life, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLAR A DAY")

BINGHAM: (Singing) Well then I'm gonna head down to south Louisiana with a guitar on my back. Corn bread and a gunny sack, maybe Uncle Sam will cut me some slack.

My drummer and I, we had this old Suburban we called Blue Thunder. And we just lived out of that Suburban and pretty much just starving to death. And we'd play coffee shops and diners and hustle up enough gas money to get to the next town.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOLLAR A DAY")

BINGHAM: (Singing) 'cause I need a little money to save.

HAJEK: Bingham saved up enough money to get to Los Angeles, where he played a little bar near Hollywood. A film agent happened to be in the crowd that night and after hearing Bingham's set, wanted to help him out.

BINGHAM: I had a couple of homemade demo CDs with some songs on it, and he just started handing them out to people that he knew. And he was the guy that sent my music to Scott Cooper.

HAJEK: The actor and director.

SCOTT COOPER: I listened to that music and I said to myself, my God, this guy has an incredible voice. I said it sounds like Ryan might be the perfect guy.

HAJEK: The perfect guy to make a song for Cooper's new film called "Crazy Heart," the story of Bad Blake, an aging songwriter fading from country music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CRAZY HEART")

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (as Jean Craddock) What's your real name?

HAJEK: In this scene, Jean Craddock, a reporter played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, interviews Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CRAZY HEART")

JEFF BRIDGES: (as Bad Blake) I'm Bad Blake. I was born bad. When I die, my tombstone will have my real name on it. Until then, I'm just going to stay bad.

GYLLENHAAL: (as Jean Craddock) That's an awful long time for people to have to wait to find out.

BRIDGES: (as Bad Blake) Maybe, maybe not.

HAJEK: Cooper asked Bingham if he'd be interested in writing something.

COOPER: And I think at that time, Ryan maybe was living in his truck. I give him the script, and he goes off. And the next day, he calls me and he says, I think I have something that might interest you.

HAJEK: Cooper invited him over to meet T Bone Burnett, the Grammy Award-winning record producer. He told him to bring his guitar.

COOPER: He said, come on in. He said, you know, show us what you got.

HAJEK: So he picked up his guitar and began to strum his song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEARY KIND")

COOPER: It immediately finds a place in your soul. And that was just with Ryan strumming the intro. And then once he started singing, his voice is so rich and whiskey-soaked that you can't even believe it's coming out of this young guy. T Bone was just shaking his head and he was like, geez, that's incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEARY KIND")

BINGHAM: (Singing) Your heart's on the loose. You rolled them seven's with nothing to lose. This ain't no place for the weary kind.

HAJEK: That song titled "The Weary Kind" became the theme from "Crazy Heart." And that year, it was nominated for Best Original Song at the 2009 Academy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2009 ACADEMY AWARDS)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And the winners are Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett, "The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEARY KIND")

BINGHAM: (Singing) This ain't no place to fall behind. Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try.

HAJEK: Suddenly, Bingham was traveling across the country on press tours and interviews, selling out venues and playing on late night TV shows. But while he was in the spotlight, he was dealing with a tragedy in his own life.

BINGHAM: At the start of it, my father had committed suicide. And so even though everything was such a wonderful time and I felt really honored about it, there was still something very big in my life that was going on that was very hard not to think about. It was probably one of the best and worst times in my whole life, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEARY KIND")

BINGHAM: (Singing) This ain't no place for the weary kind.

HAJEK: His Oscar isn't in a glass case or anywhere on display. It just stands on the floor in the corner of his bedroom.

BINGHAM: It's still as heavy as it was when I first held it. It brings back, you know, a lot of feelings, that's for sure. It's still kind of hard for me to wrap my head around a lot of that, how, you know, all that stuff that happened, it's still pretty surreal to me. And it seems like I've always kind of been waiting for it to kind of sit in, but it never really has.

(LAUGHTER)

HAJEK: Since his Oscar, he's released two albums. He'll start recording a new one next month. And on Monday, he'll join Willy Nelson on stage at Austin City Limits. Ryan Bingham's days of riding bulls and living in his truck may be part of his past, but this 32-year-old songwriter still has a lot to sing about.

BINGHAM: Yeah. You know, there are some things that you just - you can't muscle your way through some things in life. Some things you just have to keep your head on your shoulders, and you just got to dance with it as you go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

HAJEK: Daniel Hajek, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG. "FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH")

BINGHAM: (Singing) You're falling fast. You're a rock in glass running from your shattered past.

RATH: Finally, as the year ends, we want to bid a very fond farewell to someone who's been an indispensible support to this program, Kee Malesky. Kee is our reference librarian. I don't want to sound like a fogey, but ever since Google became a verb, I don't think most people appreciate the power of a skilled librarian.

In fact, an easy way to understand is to try to imagine finding out anything without an Internet search. If the Web went down right now, librarians would be just about the only people who would know how to find out anything.

And believe it or not, Google searches just don't cover everything. That's why a real librarian, someone who knows how to find real facts, is so valuable. That's one of the reasons you hear stories and reporting on NPR you can't find anywhere else while you're listening to me and not just getting all your news from your computer.

During the years I was away from NPR, there was a lot I missed about this place. But what I missed most - and most often - were the reference librarians. I can't begin to tell you what it means to a journalist to be able to pick up the phone and call someone like Kee.

She's made us sound better and smarter. There is one positive aspect to this for us, but it's a very petty one. From now on, whenever I make a mistake, mispronounce something, anything like that, I've got an easy dodge. It's because Kee Malesky is gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath. We'll be back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a wonderful and safe New Year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.