The songs on Ryan Bingham's new album, Junky Star, were written before the 29-year-old singer-songwriter won an Oscar in February for "The Weary Kind," the plaintive theme song from Crazy Heart. The tales of hopelessness, the songs of desperation, the stories about families barely surviving this tough, hard world — all of them were in the can before Bingham and producer T Bone Burnett walked onstage to accept the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Not much has changed for the New Mexico native, who now lives in Los Angeles. The two albums before Junky Star — 2007's Mescalito and last year's Roadhouse Sun — were filled with similar dust-blown songs that borrow heavily from Steve Earle's playbook. (Also borrowed from Earle: Bingham's twangy rasp.) The albums that come after it will most likely remain firmly rooted in the same aching heartland too.
The shiny award he picked up for Crazy Heart — a movie about a wrecked outlaw country singer, which also earned star Jeff Bridges a statue — may have boosted his profile a bit, but Bingham says he's still the outsider looking in — just like so many of his characters. "With all of my songs, I always keep in mind that if I'm going to keep doing this for the rest of my life, I better enjoy singing these songs when I'm 70 years old," he says.
Bingham's best songs — Mescalito's "Southside of Heaven" and "Bread and Water," "The Weary Kind," a handful of cuts on Junky Star — have a timelessness that makes them hard to pin down. They could have been written in the 1940s or 1970s. Or even in the past decade. That's certainly something the mostly stuffy and graying Oscar voters picked up on (Bingham's appearance was the Academy Awards' most left-field showing since Elliott Smith performed there in 1997).
But he's also a super-sharp songwriter. At times, Junky Star — which was produced by Burnett, and for which Bingham shares credit with his band, the Dead Horses — almost comes off like a declaration of purpose. Its greatest songs, like "The Poet" and "The Wandering," are laced with cautious hope and down-and-out despair as Bingham and the Dead Horses kick at the trail of the brokenhearted with strumming guitars, charging harmonicas, and alt-country fury.
"When I sat down and started looking at the songs I had written as a whole, I started seeing the similarities in their tone and where things were going," says Bingham. "There's definitely a theme there."
Junky Star's centerpiece is "Depression," a new-millennium Dust Bowl ballad that wraps Woody Guthrie's greatest themes of optimism and love and misery into five increasingly seething minutes. By the end of the song, the narrator has surveyed the land around him and declares, "I'd rather lay down in a pine box than to sell my heart to a fucking wasteland."
"I always try to convey what's on my mind and what's in my head," says Bingham. "I really don't have a problem when it comes to that."
The songs on Junky Star are sort of the redemption Bingham has been searching for over his three albums. They come from a personal place, but in a way they also speak for a generation now being raised on and living with hopelessness. The album's title reflects this. "Traveling across the country a lot, you get to see the darker side," he says. "The state the country is in, the condition of the people — it's kind of like an old junk car you'd find in someone's barn. It's rusted and beat-up on the outside, but there's still something alive and kicking on the inside."
Still, the Oscar is a shot of approval for Bingham, who spent years doing the wandering-troubadour thing, hauling his guitar from small gig to small gig in search of an audience. Before that he rode bulls on the rodeo circuit. Before that he was shuttled across the nation by his always-on-the-move family. So if Bingham's songs sound like they come from a guy who's lived a long life in his brief 29 years, rest assured they come from a very real place.
"I listen to my first album and I'm like, 'Yeah, I was 19 when I wrote that,'" he laughs. "But as I get older and grow up, I'm looking forward to my life ahead of me rather than looking in the past. I'm putting stuff behind me and starting to move on with my life."
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