America’s not getting a huge amount of love right now. There’s certainly no long line of wordsmiths waiting for their turn to craft odes to a nation made great again. So, it might seem a strange time for someone like Ryan Bingham to call his new record American Love Song.
The Oscar-winning songwriter has always been the champion of the ordinary folk, a kind of Bruce Springsteen in a cowboy hat, singing songs about the downtrodden. But Bingham’s love song isn’t to any version of America that exists in the mind of someone like Donald Trump. It’s to the country that exists apart from political winds, to its pure-hearted people who won’t stand idly by. Ryan Bingham loves America and he’s prepared to fight for it.
The difference with Bingham is that he does it with infectious enthusiasm. American Love Song is a rollicking ride through country and rock ‘n’ roll’s component parts. The record comes strutting out of the gate with the unbridled good time boogie woogie of ‘Jingle & Go’. If you’d only ever heard Bingham’s plaintive ‘The Weary Kind’ from Crazy Heart, you’d wonder where all this gleeful confidence is coming from.
His sixth record on shelves, a huge international tour on the horizon and a blossoming acting career in Yellowstone, Bingham is a busy man, but he found time to chat to us about his many endeavours and the importance of speaking out against injustice.
The gap between your last record and American Love Song was your longest yet. Was there a reason it took a bit longer?
I think part of that was when Fear and Saturday Night came out, we were just on the road for a long time. We toured that record for two and a half, almost three years. I tend to do most of my writing whenever I get home so I just kind of finally took some time off from touring and playing shows and it took me a while to get into that writing mode and get some songs down.
So, touring and writing are very separate mindsets for you?
Yeah, I like to get out and live a little bit and have some adventures to write about before I sit down and write stuff down. I’ve tried over the past year or so to do more writing while I’m on the road, but it always seems like it happens after I’ve been out here rambling around for a little bit.
Do you have a particular routine for writing or does it just start to happen once you’re back home?
They sort of start coming to me, whenever I get somewhere where I can be all alone with my thoughts and kind of contemplate on the things that have happened over the past couple of years. I usually start with the music and that sets the tone for what emotions are going to follow and then it all just kind of happens.
Do you have an idea in advance of what a record is going to be like, what energy you’re going for or what the themes will be?
It really depends. Sometimes I do and sometimes I just go to into it one song at a time. It kind of went both ways with this album. I had this concept in my mind but at the same time, whenever I would think of it as a whole, it would be a bit overwhelming. Finally, I just tried to take it one song at a time and eventually it did have that three-line convergence at the end.
I’ve talked to people who have written concept albums and I don’t understand how anyone does that. That seems truly overwhelming.
I guess it would be like writing a book, you know? You can see the end of the novel but at the same time you get to take it one chapter at a time. I kind of went in and out of it but I didn’t want it to be too tied down to the story. Real things are happening every day and I wanted it to tell us what was going on.
It’s kind of part autobiographical and part about current events and things that happened over the last couple of years, whether politically or economically or socially, so it was very much an ongoing process and something that was organically unfolding in the moment. I was just sort of chasing the story the whole time.
The America that you’ve released this record into is very different to the one that Fear and Saturday Night came out in, so I’m assuming you weren’t short of things to write about.
Mm hmm, yeah, you know that! Things that are going on in the world definitely have a big impact on me, same as everyone else. For me, writing songs had always kind of been about reflecting that and especially with the kind of musicians and writers that I have been inspired by, like Woody Guthrie, Bill Withers and Bob Dylan.
As a young kid growing up, those musicians always really spoke to me and a lot of those songs had a big impact on me and did a lot for me so I kind of feel an obligation to be conscious and to take some of that stuff into consideration when writing.
What I get from this record – and it ties in with the names that you just mentioned – is that it seems to me to speak about modern times in terms of our humanity rather than any kind of specific time or incident or specifically someone like Donald Trump.
Yeah, it’s pretty broad and it’s very layered. A lot of songs are about things that have happened to me growing up but are also about [social issues]. I couldn’t say that I had one song that’s not specifically about Trump because it very much is [laughs], but at the same time, it’s part of a broader context as well.
There’s a song called ‘Wolves’ on the album that’s very much about me growing up as a kid and dealing with all of that stuff. I moved a lot as a young kid to new towns all the time, new schools and got in lots of fights and things like that, but it’s also very much about the organizers of March For Our Lives and the kids who have been going through these school shootings, Sandy Hook, Parkland.
‘Wolves’ made me think of something I heard recently. I can’t remember who said it, but the general gist was that all these people who said they were leaving America once Trump won the election were just running from the problem instead of helping to solve it. In that way, ‘Wolves’ sounds to me like a call to arms.
Yeah, I think so too. I can only speak for myself but I definitely have that same thing. It’s not the first time the country has had a hard time and had to deal with adversity so you’ve got to grind it out and get out there and vote.
Do you find people expect a different point of view from you, seeing as you’re a southern guy who plays country music and has a rodeo background?Yeah, I think people who don’t know me or have never really listened to my music associate me with a certain type of image and stereotype. Maybe they’ve seen pictures of me in a cowboy hat or whatever, but I don’t know what to do about that other than just sing the song that I’ve been singing since day one.
I sang on my very first record, Mescalito, about the struggle and the hustle, you know? Songs like ‘Hard Times’ and ‘The South Side of Heaven’ and all of those songs were very much about kind of blue-collar side of life.
I find it surprising, you know, but at the same time, you can tell the people who just see things on the surface and never really go any deeper. It’s pretty common.
Growing up on that rodeo circuit, did you find your point of view stood out?When I was younger, I never really thought about it. I didn’t necessarily wear it on my sleeve as much as I do now. I think I was always conscious about it but I still had a lot to learn and I was still kind of discovering the wolf in my myself.
Those views have developed over time, traveling around the world, having experiences and seeing how other people lived. That developed my perspective and my point of view and broadened my horizons.
I was probably educated when I was 20 years old to maybe have some of the left leanings that I do now, but things have developed as I’ve gotten older and definitely more confident about how I feel about things and more confident to speak up about how I feel about things.
If someone hadn’t heard the record and was listening to what we’ve been saying, it might sound it’s quite heavy going, but it’s really not. Right from the start, it sounds like you had a lot of fun making it.
Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for. I really wanted the songs be a lot of fun to play live and I wanted the people who were coming to the shows to have a lot of fun, too. I mean I have some songs that are a bit on the darker side and slower ballads and such and just playing those songs every night, night after night, it gets a bit down. [Laughs]
I’ve a great band that I’ve toured with and they’re very capable of playing a lot of different styles of music, so I wanted to have some fun and play some rock ‘n’ roll and play the blues, you know and just have those kinds of different landscapes to be able to weave in and out of
Has it been more fun getting out and touring this record then?
We’ve enjoyed it man, we’ve had a blast. We’re about three weeks into this tour that we’re on now and people already coming out and singing all the words to the new songs, which is nice. I mean, usually it takes a few more months. This record seems to be going pretty good so far.
You’ve also got your own festival coming up in a few days…
Yes, we do. It’s coming up quick!
Have you enjoyed been putting a festival together?
Man, it’s a lot of work, to be honest with you. My wife’s now my manager and she’s been the one that’s doing most of the work putting things together. It’s fun but it’s a lot of work.
We play festivals every year and 80 per cent of the time you end up in a parking lot somewhere and there’s just not much of a vibe going on. A lot of the bands don’t end up really collaborating and there’s not much of a sense of community. We really wanted to make something that was a bit more personal and more like we were inviting people over to our house and having a big barbecue and playing guitars around the campfire and singing songs.
This place Luckenbach, Texas, where we’re going, is some place that I used to go to often when I was young starting out and playing the guitar and writing songs. There’s a lot of history there with big beautiful oak trees on this park and a river that runs through the area. It’s a great place to hang out, even if there wasn’t anything going on there.
Along with all that, your acting career has taken off, too.
That was something that I didn’t see coming, you know? I didn’t really have that much ambition on doing very much acting but it keeps coming at me so at some point I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll take this on and give it a shot.” I’ve just been having fun with it, we’ll see what where it goes.
You’ve already got a Grammy and an Oscar so you’re half way to your EGOT. You never know…
Yeah, I guess I shouldn’t stop now,
I hear you’ve got a bigger part coming up in the next season of Yellowstone.
Man, it’s been really cool. It was one of those things that just happened. I knew the guy that’s directed and written the show, Taylor Sheridan, from a few years back. When Yellowstone came about, he initially just contacted me about writing some songs for the show.
Once we met and hung out a bit, he found out that I used to rodeo and grew up ranching and knew how to ride horses and all that. He said, “Man, I got to get you in the show if you can do all that stuff.”
So, I came in to read some lines from some other part and then he was like, “I’m going to create this character for you. If you’re good we’ll just keep you on and if you suck, we’ll just kill you off.” So far, I’m still around, so I must be doing okay.
I think that’s a pretty good thumbs up any way. I also wanted to ask you about your duds on the cover of American Love Song. They’re pretty amazing
Is that general Ryan Bingham style?
Yeah, it’s maybe symbolic in a way of how I grew up and where I’m from. I wanted this record to just represent a bit of me and all the different places that I’ve lived in.
Growing up, I moved around a lot of the time. I was born in New Mexico and from there my family moved to California and then from there we came back to Texas and all around the State of Texas, which really changes drastically from one corner to the next. I wanted to represent a lot of those different areas with the music: country, blues, Cajun music, jazz, bluegrass.
Those clothes, that whole 70s cowboy thing with the car and the trailer represents a place where I’m from and things that I grew up seeing. I could say I had to wear a lot of different kinds of hats growing up and moving in a different area and so it’s a blend of all of it.
Is there a difference between what you wear every day and what you wear on stage? Are you somebody who has stage outfits to ‘go to work’?
Yeah, to an extent. I’m definitely not getting dressed up every day. I spend a lot of time when I’m at home working outside in the yard, I still work with horses quite a bit and I got a couple of small children that are three and one years old. When they’re climbing all over me, I’m definitely not putting on dress pants and my hat all the time.
Mark Grassick joins us with over 17 years' experience as a journalist covering pop culture in the UK and Ireland. He's interviewed everyone from Alan Rickman to Iron Maiden and is currently a bearded, music-mad father of two and husband of one residing in London, England.