In 2018, when they set out to work together, producer and guitarist Charlie Sexton asked Ryan Bingham what kind of album he intended to make for his sixth studio album. “I’ve always wanted to make a country blues album,” Bingham told him, laying out the blueprint for would become American Love Song, the 37-year-old’s first new album in four years (released February 15). The record lays out Bingham’s hardscrabble backstory: an itinerant youth spent in New Mexico, Texas, and California; time riding on the rodeo circuit; and the untimely deaths of his mother, an alcoholic, and his father, who took his own life.
“The kind of subject matter I write about—my story—aligns with the blues,” says Bingham, who won a Grammy in 2011 and an Oscar in 2010 for “The Weary Kind,” the lead song from the soundtrack to the acclaimed film Crazy Heart. “It really seems to define who I am more than anything, especially now, when I’m coming into my own and realizing big parts of my identity. I’ve identified with the blues for a long time and a lot more now than ever.”
American Love Song also directly addresses the fractious state of the union. On one song, he sings about a president “ridin’ on the back of the poor man, selling them lies.” On another, he concludes, “People judging colors of skin, people taking children from their kind. . . this world is hardly beautiful or kind.” Bingham says he’d feel complicit if he didn’t write about what he sees as rampant racism, misogyny, and jingoism. He credits much of his progressive views to the rodeo circuit, where he says he was surrounded by as many hippies as cowboys and regularly traveled to Mexico to compete.
“I had a lot of experiences at a young age where I could form my own views and make my own relationships,” Bingham says. “And I think that all played a part into where I am now. To really write songs takes empathy. You have to try to put yourself in other people’s shoes.”
On this week’s National Podcast of Texas, Bingham—who will host his own festival, The Western, in Luckenbach on April 13—talks about fear, how American Love Song is really a Texas love letter, his battle with depression, and how therapy and music changed his outlook.
Some highlights (condensed and edited for clarity):
On audiences relating to his complex backstory
There are a lot of folks out there unfortunately that have been through some similar stuff, and I think that that’s why some of these songs resonates so deep with people. I am surprised sometimes at how much it means to people. [I’ll meet] folks after a show sometimes and they’ll be in tears and overwhelmed, especially some of these acoustic shows I’ve been playing, telling all these stories—some of the venues have been completely sold out of alcohol every night. We did one show in Spokane, Washington, on a Tuesday night, and they were like, “We’ve never sold this much liquor in one night in the history of this venue ever being open.” I almost feel like it’s people going home for like a family reunion. There’s a lot of emotion going on, and it’s interesting to hear how people interpret these songs into their own stories and in their own lives—I’ve learned a lot from it.
On making a protest record
Especially having kids now of my own, I don’t want them to grow up and be like, “Why didn’t you ever say anything? Why don’t you ever do anything about it?” I think it’s really important for everybody out there to speak their minds, and not be complicit and let fear back you into this corner where you just let everything go by. It’s a responsibility.
The single biggest inspiration I have was Bob Dylan. My uncle had all these old records from this bar that they owned in the sixties and seventies out there in New Mexico, and I started listening to these records—stuff they didn’t play on the radio. Bob Dylan led me to Woody Guthrie and learning more about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr., which opened my mind up to the world in different ways. Being a kid from a small town, from New Mexico and West Texas, nobody else was really talking about that kind of stuff, so I very much saw this door open to almost another universe. I went through it and I never came back.
On the autobiographical nature of his songwriting
The songs have always been there for me to lean on. That’s a reason why I started writing songs in the first place. I never intended to really play [my first songs] for anybody. It was just pouring my heart out, saying things out loud to get stuff off my chest, because I didn’t necessarily have anyone at that time to really talk to about it. Everyone I knew was like, “Therapy is only for crazy people.” It really was that was my only outlet at the time, and I’ve written like that since then. I don’t really know how to write otherwise.
On building confidence
It’s still uncomfortable for me. When I go onstage and I play or I’m out meeting a lot of people, I’ve got to get my stuff together. It’s not actual stage fright. I think that might come from when I used to ride bulls growing up—for that, you have to transform that nervous energy into something positive and use it. My uncle was a bull rider, and when I was a kid and I started riding steers, we would have these long talks. He would tell me that if I really wanted to do this, there’s a certain mindset that you need to develop to keep you safe and to really succeed at this. It’s not, “I think I can.” It’s, “I know I can, and I will.” He explained the difference between being cocky and competent—walking into a room and holding your head up high, your shoulders back, without arrogance. I’ve just always taken that with me in these situations.
On why he wasn’t ready for the attention that followed Crazy Heart
When all that happened, I was still fairly young and I wasn’t really developed as a musician or a performer yet. I’d never really played with the band until I signed a record deal and just hit the road. I didn’t start really playing the guitar till I was about seventeen, and I never really had those formative years are where like I was in my room, figuring all that stuff out before I hit the stage. I just did all that on the road all at once, so all those years of playing roadhouses in bars and clubs, I was really figuring it out. Then the Oscar stuff hit, and I was overwhelmed and still a bit insecure with myself, so it was a bit of a challenge for me.
On how he defines success
I was successful at [my music] a long time ago. I had this old truck with a camper on it that I lived out of for a bit, and I didn’t really have very high expectations of having a career in music. I always just thought that if could play in a bar and make $100 in tips a night, that’s more than I was ever going to make digging holes for somebody building a fence, so at that point, I’d made it. That still is kind of the way I live my life. I lived for so long without anything that the more stuff I’ve been able to acquire and the more success that I’ve had, I’ve realized more and more how it’s not really important. Those aren’t the things that I need in life at all. Meeting my wife and having a family? That’s the ultimate thing for me. Success for me was finding all of that. If all this were to go away tomorrow, as long as I have all of that, I know that I’m going to be fine.