Early success and hype have at times overwhelmed a young artist. For each one who makes it through the first few years with their creative compass intact, hundreds more are swallowed up by pressure. With the release of Roadhouse Sun, his second album for Lost Highway Records, Ryan Bingham shows that he’s been through enough in his life to deal with just about anything — but that’s not to say that he isn’t still growing up.
His story is one of constant motion. Moving from town to town with his family throughout childhood, he became a bull rider in his late teens and traveled on a touring rodeo circuit. On one of those tours, he found music and songwriting and hasn’t left the road since. By the time of his major label debut, Mescalito, a firestorm of sorts had started around his life with some claiming him as heir to the throne of certain long-gone troubadours. The critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter recently talked to CMT.com about how people interpret his past, the feeling on his new album and finally finding a place to unwind.
CMT: People make a lot of your past, but how do you feel about the way you are portrayed?
Bingham: A lot of it’s truth, but there’s definitely some exaggeration in there. I mean, I think a lot of writers may take a simple or basic story, and to make it appealing to people who read magazines and stuff, they kind of put their own twist on it. Sometimes it’s cool, and sometimes it’s kind of like, “What the hell are y’all talking about?” But you’ve just kind of got to take it in stride. People can read what they want in magazines, and if they need to clear something up, just give me a call — and we’ll set it straight.
Does it affect the way some people approach you, thinking you’re this kind of outlaw guy who’s just drifting around?
No, not so much. I think a lot of people can kind of see that up front. Sometimes I think people are skeptical of what they read. You know, like, “Oh, this kid’s only 28 years old. There’s no way he’s lived through that kind of s***.” But everybody has the right to their own opinion. And, I don’t know, just come out and see a show or come meet us and see what you think for yourself.
The story is really interesting, but how does it relate to your music in the present? If you were writing a song now, would your past still have a big influence?
It used to more than it does now. Maybe it’s part of me growing up and putting some things behind me that I used to dwell on when I was younger, but it seems like more, now today, I seem to have a little bit more of an optimistic kind of a view on life. I’m writing more about the stuff that I look forward to than the stuff that I’m looking back on.
Did that lead you to write different kinds of songs like “Endless Ways,” which has a political side to it?
Yeah, I think just part of that is just growing up. I just turned 28 this year, and over the past eight years through the Bush administration and all that, a lot of [messed] up stuff has been going on with the country. Who knows where it’s going to head from here, hopefully in a better direction, but anybody that lives in this country is aware of what’s going on. It’s on the news every day. It’s in newspapers. People are talking about it everywhere, so it’s just kind of another thing that you’re exposed to. A lot of that’s political and economic and all that, and I think it’s important to write about it, as well.
Marc Ford produced both records and is also a former member of the Black Crowes. Is there a certain sound that he brings?
It’s definitely kind of an older sound. Kind of like the older rock ‘n’ roll stuff. I don’t think Marc listens to much music that wasn’t recorded before 1970. (laughs) And that’s kind of the stuff we’re into, as well. So I think just as far as his outlook on the whole production part of it — and I think, sonically, the whole record, the drums, the guitar tones and everything like that — has kind of an old school approach to it that we really dug.
Elijah Ford, your bass player, is Marc’s son. Who did you meet first?
I met Marc first. When we first met Marc, me and [drummer] Matt [Smith] came out to L.A. and were just playing in a small club down in Hollywood. Marc was in the crowd of about five people that was there just hanging out. We just became friends and started jamming together quite a bit, and when we got the opportunity to go in and work on the record, he was the first guy we called up.
I think Elijah was probably 16 or something when we met Marc. He was young, and later it came up that we needed a bass player on the road. Marc mentioned to us that Elijah could play, and we got him on the road. He’s been with us ever since.
Was it really important for you to have your touring band, the Dead Horses, playing on the record?
Yeah, it was really important for me to have the guys that I play with on the record because that’s how we sound live when we go out on the road. I think it’s important for people that come out to the shows to really get what’s on the record. And we all really enjoy playing together. I couldn’t imagine using anybody else but those guys, anyway.
What’s a typical day on the road like for you and the band?
Well, before all the record label stuff started, it was just me and my drummer — and that was it. We didn’t make any money, and we couldn’t find anybody who would put up with us to go on the road because we were always just camping out in the truck. You know, we were both kind of homeless, so wherever we would end up — on somebody’s couch or somebody’s back yard or camping out somewhere — that’s where we were.
But since we’ve got the record out and they’ve got us on kind of a schedule, it’s a little different. It’s basically wake up, drive in the van and get to the gig, play and drive again to the next town. Just a lot of driving and playing and trying to take in all the sights along the way and experiences and people you meet. Things like that. Maybe get a few songs out of it, as well.
You’ve been doing it for so long, there must be something about the road that you really love. Do you know what it is?
Well, I don’t know. It’s kind of a love/hate relationship. Growing up, we always moved a lot. It wasn’t because we wanted to, it was because we had to — living out of a cardboard box and stuff, the family always trying to find work in different towns. And then I started rodeoing when I was young and ended up spending a lot of time on the road doing that. There’s definitely a part of it I love. And the traveling, it’s kind of a freedom that you have that you’re not tied down to a house and bills and stuff, and all that really matters is that you’re just out in the wide open and kind of throwing caution to the wind.
But it’s also nice to have a place to go to, kind of a home base where you can chill out. This place I’m living at now in California is the first house I’ve ever had in my whole life with my own name on the mailbox. It’s a pretty comforting thing. The first two or three months I was here, I think I slept for two or three weeks at a time just from being on the road for, like, 10 years straight and finally having a place to wind down and kind of come back to reality and catch up with myself.