It’s a bit on the warm side, this Friday night in New Orleans when Ryan Bingham takes to the Flambeau Stage at the Voodoo Music & Arts Experience a few weeks ago. Opening with a kicking “Dollar A Day” from his first solo record, 2007’s Mescalito, when Richard Bowden’s fiddle kicks in, you can feel this set is going to be fun. With a top-notch band by his side – including Bowden, guitar player Daniel Sproul, drummer Nate Barnes and bass player Jimmy Stofer – Bingham brought out mostly the spirited kick up your heels music, allowing for more dancing and singing over contemplating the labors of life slower tunes, with the fiercely electric “Sunshine” bringing the house down in a rip roaring hog snorting crescendo thanks to guitarist Daniel Sproul’s fever pitch playing, especially on slide (if you’re looking for a new guitar hero to follow, he’s your boy).
Bingham has one of those stories songwriters like to conjure up when creating phoenixes from the ashes. Born in New Mexico, raised predominately in Texas, he was given his first guitar at sixteen, learned his first chords via a mariachi tune a neighbor taught him, rode bulls on the junior rodeo circuit and found songwriting as a way to deal with his parents’ problems. He could very well have followed them down the same hole into a life of sorrow and alcoholism but fate kept pulling him in a different direction. Constantly coaxed into pulling out his guitar and singing for friends led to singing to more and more people. Before he knew it, he was on a stage, opening for legendary Texas musician Joe Ely, recording several records with the Dead Horses, going solo with his first release in 2007, winning a Best Original Song Oscar and Golden Globe Award for “The Weary Heart,” which he co-wrote with T-Bone Burnett for the 2009 Jeff Bridges film, Crazy Heart, and starting Axster Bingham Records with his wife Anna.
“I feel like I’ve been traveling my whole life, even from when I was a little kid,” Bingham said upon the release earlier this year of Fear & Saturday Night. “Both of my parents were really bad alcoholics and my dad could never keep down a job, so we never lived in the same town for more than a couple years. And even if we did, we’d move to different houses every other month. It felt like I lived out of a cardboard box growing up until I was old enough to buy my own suitcase and then I was just running from everything.” Bingham has definitely proved his talent, his dedication and his loyalty to the music and fans who kept leading him in a positive direction.
Following his set at Voodoo, which garnered them Glide’s “Star Of The Day” accolade, I was able to chat with Bingham about doing an interview in the future. A week later, it happened. “I told you I’d talk to you,” he said with a cheerful laugh when we began our chat while he was relaxing at his home in California before heading back out on the road the following week.
Thanks for talking with me after your set at Voodoo, considering I was sweaty and stinky and wet.
Oh, you weren’t the only one (laughs). I promise we were right there with you.
Was that your first time at Voodoo?
Yes ma’am. It was my first time at Voodoo Fest but I’ve been in New Orleans a bunch. We had a blast. It was awesome.
You caught it on the good day because Saturday it got real bad.
Yeah, I heard. We flew out the next morning to go to Austin but we had a blast while we were there. We were jetlagged. We just flew in there from Dublin, Ireland, so we were all pretty jetlagged but it was kind of the perfect place to be. There was definitely a lot of stuff to do and to keep your mind busy and kind of stay active. It was nice. I really enjoy New Orleans so it was great.
How differently do you prepare your setlist for a festival as opposed to a normal show?
Well, it depends on how long the set is. Usually we play like two hours in our normal set so we definitely have to kind of trim it down and things like that. But usually at a festival like that, especially when you are competing against a lot of other noise from other stages, it also depends kind of on what time you go on and what other kinds of bands are playing. It’s really difficult at festivals like that to play slow acoustic ballads because you get a lot of bleed and noise from other stages. So sometimes it’s hard to fingerpick a really slow ballad if all you hear is a snare drum from another really loud rock & roll band next door, you know. So we try to keep the songs a little bit more up tempo and fast-paced and keep the volume up a little bit louder onstage so we can hear what we’re doing and playing. But other than that, we try to play songs we enjoy and hopefully the fans enjoy too. We try not to have to compromise too much with that.
On your set-list, you marked out “Hallelujah” and added in “Rip This Joint.”
Yeah, I did. That was one that I thought that if we did “Hallelujah,” cause a big part of that song is very quiet and it’s very stripped-down and very acoustic, I was afraid it would kind of get lost in the noise from the EDM stages and things like that. I’ve kind of battled that in the past at festivals so I just figured we would just keep the ball rolling and stay in the groove instead of kind of bringing it down that slow. I would have liked to have played it but unfortunately sometimes the environment doesn’t really call for that kind of situation. Sometimes you just have to adapt to the situation. You get out there and you plan on playing some songs but maybe the crowd is energetic and they’re wanting to party a little bit more and you just kind of go with the vibe of the crowd and the vibe of the festival as well. So we always keep some audibles in there in case we need to shift gears.
And you got to meet some fans when you went out to watch Jason Isbell, who played after you.
(laughs) Yeah we did. That’s really why we’re there playing, you know. If people didn’t want to hear the songs and hear us playing them, I’d be back at home building a fence on the ranch. That’s the only reason I’m out there doing it so I’m really appreciative of folks and I’m happy to meet them as well. It makes it all worthwhile for all of us all the way around. It’s a give-and-take situation. The fans give us just as much as we’re giving out and we feed off that energy and we’re happy to be there playing and happy that they want to hear the songs. So I feel really lucky to be able to play music for a living and get to come to places like New Orleans and play at Voodoo Fest and all the other places we get to go to. We’re real lucky to do that so I try not to take that for granted.
Considering some of the things that happened in your early life, where did your confidence come from?
You know, I think probably it comes from the fans. When you get up there onstage and they’re happy and clapping and they want to hear the songs and they’re singing along to the tunes, that really gives you the confidence to play them. That is what has always driven me from the start is playing music. I never really got into writing songs or planned to really perform for people. I just really wrote songs for myself and it all started from just my friends and maybe people from my family that wanted to hear the songs and then friends of theirs and it kept growing to other folks that wanted to hear the songs. That was what really encouraged me to keep playing and to really perform for people: just folks out there asking me to play the songs. So definitely people singing along to the songs and asking me to play them. That gives me all the confidence in the world to get up there and play them for people.
You’ve said before that your early songs were like a diary and that they weren’t really for other people to hear. What are a couple of those songs that did make it out?
Oh I don’t know, I mean, a lot of them are written in that way and there are a lot of them that I’ve been singing. Probably the majority of them have kind of come out of that batch.
And you don’t mind singing some of those onstage that are so personal?
It depends, you know. Definitely some songs are harder to play every night than others, especially when you’re on tour and playing those songs every night. There’s definitely some of them that are harder than others but at the same time those are songs that people can kind of relate to and connect with their own stories or whatever they had been through personally. So then that’s something I’m happy to play and can kind of get something else out of that, you know. So it just depends on the situation and kind of who wants to hear the song.
Do you think having had that outlet helped you not go in the direction as what happened with your parents?
Yeah, totally. I think I could very much have wound up in jail than on the road and playing music. That was definitely a great release and a great way to vent and get stuff off my chest and kind of help process the world around me and help me grow up and help me deal with things. That’s what writing songs has really been about for me for a long time. It’s gotten to a point now where I’ve really been able to transition out of that and kind of write songs for other reasons. But for a long time, especially in my early twenties being a young man growing up, it was a great thing to have and be able to kind of voice that stuff.
I understand that you prefer writing more on your own and not so much on the road.
Yeah I do. I feel like I have to travel a bit before I can write, you know. I think that I have to have something to write about and traveling is where I really have those experiences and adventures and you meet people out there on the road along the way and you experience different cultures and different foods in different parts of the world and I feel like when I get home is when I can sit down and really reflect on the places that I’ve been and people I’ve met along the way and that’s what I write about. So when I’m out on the road I just try to soak it all up and kind of live in the moment and not live through an iPhone or a piece of paper writing stuff down. I just try to be in the moment and then think about it when I get home and write about it.
You released Fear & Saturday Night earlier this year. What was wanting to come out of you when you started writing the songs for that record?
You know, I try not to really think about it that much. I just try to write what’s on my mind. I’ve never really been one to sit down with a pen and paper and try to force out a song or try to craft some idea. It’s hard for me to sing about something I haven’t experienced or that I haven’t really lived through. I feel like, how do I expect people to believe what I’m saying if I don’t believe it myself. So whenever I’m writing songs, I just try to write about stuff that I really feel, something that I’ve been through and something that I can sing every night and really mean it. That’s just kind of how I’ve always gone about it.
Have you started writing for a new record yet?
I have. I’ve always got little ideas. I don’t write many lyrics on the road but I’m always playing the guitar and writing melodies and musical ideas. When I’m on the road I will record and write all these little ideas and then I take them home and kind of put words to them. So I’ve got a handful of stuff that I’m working on.
Do you know when that will be seeing the light of day?
I’m hoping to start really dialing stuff in and recording the middle of next year. So hopefully by next fall I’ll have another record out.
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the most difficult part to get the hang of?
When I first started learning, and I’ve never had any sort of musical training or background, I really just had a neighbor that taught me how to play some old mariachi music when I was about seventeen and that was the first music I ever learned. Really, the biggest part was kind of expanding from there and learning other chords and probably the other biggest part was I’d never played with a band before. I could play acoustic guitar and I could play one or two chord songs and things like that but when it came down to sitting with a band, it was really like having to orchestrate the songs and arrange the chord progressions and all of that stuff. It was really learning what NOT to play that was the biggest thing; learning how to kind of create space and making room for everybody else in the band and just playing the part, whatever part you are playing on the guitar, and letting everybody else play a part that went with that. So that was probably the biggest learning lesson for me.
I have a question from a fan named Rhett who wanted me to ask you who your slide influences were, that he hears more Elmore James and Bonnie Raitt in your style than say Duane Allman.
Oh, that’s a good point. You know, definitely Bonnie Raitt, she was a big influence on me. But George Thorogood, of all people, was a sound that I heard at a young age. I was like, Wow, that’s a mean sounding slide guitar. George Thorogood was a big one for me. Then kind of older acoustic blues kind of music – Robert Johnson and things like that. I’m not sure how much slide he actually played all the time but just some of that early acoustic kind of blues sounds. But when it came to the electric, George Thorogood and that big, mean, kind of distorted tones. Marc Ford from the Black Crowes was a big influence on me too. He produced my first two records and he’s the one that first gave me an electric guitar and a slide and told me that he thought that would fit my personality (laughs). So he’s a pretty big influence.
How did you take to a slide? Did you find it like a duck to water?
I did. I loved it. Like, as soon as I picked that up and plugged that electric guitar in, I was just like, Yeah, let’s go! (laughs)
What is your guitar of choice today?
Right now, I’ve got a 1963 J45 Gibson acoustic that my wife bought me a few years ago for my birthday and that’s probably my favorite guitar to play.
Do you prefer acoustic over electric?
You know, I don’t really have a preference. It really depends on what kind of mood I’m in (laughs).
Keith Richards always said that the acoustic guitar is how you can really tell a good guitar player. You agree?
Yes ma’am, I do. I still have a lot to learn on the guitar. I get by with a few little tricks I know but I’m by no means a Duane Allman or any of those guys (laughs).
How did the mandolin come into your music?
I just picked up the mandolin a couple of months ago. A friend of mine named Jedd Hughes, who is a guitar player who plays with us sometimes, he got me that mandolin and then Richard, the fiddle player in our band, started teaching me some chords on it and I just started playing. I don’t know, just all of a sudden I had one and I really enjoy playing it and it’s been a lot of fun.
Where did you find Daniel Sproul?
You know, those guys, Daniel Sproul and Nate Barnes that plays drums with me, they were in a band called Rose Hill Drive from Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been a fan of those guys for a long time and I just ended up kind of meeting them randomly through some other friends and we just really hit it off and started playing music together and had a blast. Those guys are really incredible, some great musicians, and I’m happy to be on the road with them.
How long have they been with you?
Just over the past couple of years
In regards to the Dead Horses, why was it time to let go of that band a few years ago?
You know, there were a lot of different reasons. We’d been beating it up on the road for like ten years in that band and I think when we all got into that we were all really young and we were excited about the adventure of it all. But when you start really looking down the road and thinking, Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life, do I want to be an old man up on that stage playing a guitar and this and that, I think some of the guys in the band were just not really sure if they wanted to do that. I don’t want to really speak for everybody else but I know my drummer, Matt Smith, he wanted to start up a bar and a restaurant there in Fort Worth with his brother and sister, which they did and they have a great live music venue. Elijah Ford, who was playing bass, he was only seventeen years old when he started playing with us, and he’s an amazing guitar player and songwriter in his own rite, and he wanted to write his own songs and make some of his own records and get a band together. And that’s not something you can really do if you’re in another band as well. So just everybody had little different directions and things they wanted to do with their lives as well and it just got to that point where we all kind of wanted to do some other stuff and that was a big part of it.
Elijah played on his dad’s album, Holy Ghost, last year.
Yeah he did. You know, we all stay in touch and Elijah just played a bunch of shows with us in Spain with his band and he’s got a great new record out himself. He’s writing songs like a madman. He’s doing great.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
I would have to say Joe Ely
You’ve always spoken very highly of him. What is it about his music that you love so much?
I think part of it was that he was from Lubbock, Texas, and he was writing songs about a place that I was from as well. I was from Hobbs, New Mexico, which is just right across the state line, so all those songs and stuff were coming from an area that I grew up in so I could relate to him. He was one of the first people that I met who let me go out and play some shows with him and in my eyes he was a bit of a hero and somebody I looked up to. That was one of the first people that I met that had a big influence on me.
Did he let you sit in with him or he let your band play?
He took me on the road with him and let me open up for some shows, let me play a bunch of gigs with him. That’s when I first met him.
What do you have coming up the rest of the year?
I got a big tour coming up. We start up in Seattle, Washington, and head down the West Coast and then head back east. I got a couple of tours and hopefully record another record next year. So we’re definitely busy and a lot of stuff going on.
What still excites you about playing music?
Just learning something new every day. I feel like I have a lot of room to grow and learn as a musician and as a guitar player or mandolin or anything like that. So it’s just kind of learning from the people you’re around and the fans wanting to hear songs and the energy of it all. It just all feeds the fire.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough