On a good day, Ryan Bingham could ride a bronc for the full eight seconds. But on a bad day, he'd get his teeth knocked out and find himself thinking about another line of work.
"Writing songs is a lot easier on the body, but I'm not sure about the mind," says Bingham, whose Mescalito (Lost Highway) is a double-fisted shot of West Texas alt-country. "If you're riding bulls, you've got to stay focused or you'll end up getting hurt really bad. But if you're writing songs and playing music, the road can take a toll in its own way."
Now 26, Bingham spent his childhood in New Mexico, the son of a fourth-generation hardscrabble rancher. When they lost the ranch, the family started shuttling between Texas and California, moving from one oil town to another. By 17, Bingham was living on his own, making a little money riding bulls, and writing songs on acoustic guitar. He cried when he wrote his first good song—the country-rocking "Southside of Heaven," which opens the album—and has kept going ever since. He can write five or six songs in a day, then let two or three months pass before picking up his pen again.
"Everything I write is related to my life, the people I meet, and the things I go through," says Bingham, talking before a gig at South by Southwest this past March. "I've never been one to just make up a story. For me, songwriting has always been a way of venting, getting things off my chest. If I'm happy, I laugh. If I'm sad, I cry. If I'm pissed off, I scream. But I definitely feel better when I'm done writing."
He quit rodeo five years ago, after knocking out two teeth and taking 40 stitches in his lower lip. Since then, he's toured the southwest as half of a guitar-and-drums duo, spent a year playing for change in the subways of Paris, and self-released a couple of no-budget albums, Wishbone Saloon (2005) and Dead Horses (2006). The albums found their way to Lost Highway Records, and a bar gig in Los Angeles led Bingham to ex-Black Crowes rhythm guitarist Marc Ford, who suggested re-recording the tracks in his studio.
Produced by Ford, Mescalito reprises Bingham's strongest songs from the last five years, staking out a middle ground between the funky, loose-limbed Crowes and a brooding, road-weary Neil Young. There's "Bread and Water," coasting on the strength of Bingham's slide acoustic guitar; "Boracho Station," a lilting mariachi waltz about wandering through the desert; and the anthemic "Hard Times" and "Dollar a Day," with their rousing, hard-bitten plaints of life on minimum wage. Ford is all over the album, playing acoustic, electric, and lap steel guitar, while Bingham's road band, the Dead Horses—Corby Schaub (guitar and mandolin), Matt Smith (drums), and Jeb Venable (bass)—shift gears effortlessly from folk to country to rock.
With help from Schaub, Bingham has started playing slide in open-E and open-G tunings, experimenting with new chords and progressions, and pushing himself to play solos. "Corby blows me away with the things he comes up with," says Bingham. "Every day around Corby is a learning experience for me. I can fingerpick a little bit, I can strum a little bit, and I can play lead just a little bit—basically, I can do everything half-assed. But I wouldn't consider myself a professional by any means. Playing with a band for the last couple of years has been a new thing for me, having to stick to a certain range instead of just changing keys and switching rhythms whenever I wanted."
Thanks to whiskey and cigarettes, Bingham's voice sounds far older than his years, and his songs have a heightened sense of solitude, with all the rootlessness that comes from life on the road. Bingham describes the album as a journey, much like his last few years, spent driving from one town to another, picking up gigs wherever he could, and sleeping on the side of the road.
Mescalito has brought him a newfound visibility, with plans to record a follow-up album, appearances on late-night television, and hundreds of thousands of hits on his MySpace page. These days, when he pulls into a new town, people have already heard his songs, and by the end of a set, they're singing along. "I've definitely grown a lot as a performer, and once the crowd gets a few drinks in them and the band starts to relax, things really start to flow," says Bingham.
"It's nice now to go to a new town and actually have a hotel room, instead of sleeping in the truck," he says. "I'm real fortunate to be making a living like this. But I have to say, I miss the wildness I used to have, where I could just come and go at the drop of a hat, any time of day, any day of the week."
Lone Star State of Mind
The more time he spends touring, the less time Ryan Bingham has for songwriting. So instead of driving into the desert to write, as he did in the past, he's learned to find solitude in the back of his van. "When you're on the road all the time, you have to be a little more creative," he says. "You've got to steal that time anyway you can. So I bought myself a kids' guitar that's small enough to play in the backseat. There's a lot of inspiration in seeing new places and meeting new people, and sitting in back gives me a chance to really reflect on things. It's not the same as being by myself, but I can still get inside my head, start writing, and see what I can come up with. If I'm sitting in the back and a song is ready to come, it'll come."
Ryan Bingham's Guitars and Gear
2005 Gibson Songwriter Deluxe dreadnought; 1940s-era Old Kraftsman