Ryan Bingham has seen a lot of America and he writes about all of it -- the beauty and the struggle -- on his new album American Love Song (out on Feb. 15). The California-based singer-songwriter was born in New Mexico, but was mostly raised in Texas. He spent the majority of his childhood bouncing around the Lone Star State, from small west Texas towns to Houston to the Texas-Mexico border.
Bingham says the album, which he co-produced with Charlie Sexton and recorded in Austin and Los Angeles, is heavily influenced by the wide-ranging musical genres he was exposed to growing up.
"You had the Tejano stuff, the blues, the jazz, the hip hop, electronic -- it was such a big melting pot for all those cultures and all those musical influences," Bingham tells Wide Open Country. "I've definitely found myself being drawn to different things from different places that I've lived in and wanted to have that represented in one way or the other on this album."
American Love Song
The deeply personal and politically-driven album also addresses issues that are on the hearts and minds of many Americans today. On "Situation Station," "America," and "Beautiful and Kind," Bingham sings about poverty, racism, gun violence and the treatment of immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border.
"This world is causing trouble, people judging colors of skin/ People takin' children from their kin," Bingham sings on the stirring "Beautiful and Kind." "No matter where you're from or where you've been/ Oh lord, this world is hardly beautiful or kind."
Bingham says the songs stemmed from traveling around the country and seeing people struggling.
"A lot of these songs -- it's just traveling around the world and seeing this country from coast to cost on tour and witnessing things every day. I can't help but write about that," Bingham says. "It's really all I've ever done. I just write about the people and the places and experiences that I've had along the way and it all naturally falls in there one way or the other."
Bingham says, early on, songwriting was a way for him to express himself at a time when showing vulnerability wasn't always possible.
"A lot of those areas I was living in, they were just kind of rough places and you always had to have your guard up. You didn't know who was going to be coming after you or when or where. There wasn't a lot of time to relax and open up about time. I didn't have a lot of people to talk to," Bingham says. "So the guitar really became that outlet. For a long time I never really wrote songs down. I would just say these things that were in my mind. I'd just say them out loud and that was enough. I didn't really have any intentions to write them down or even sing them for anybody. That's how it all started--being in an empty room and saying some of the stuff out loud and getting it off my chest."
But it isn't all gloom. Like the album's title would suggest, American Love Song celebrates the beauty of being alive and in love, from the honky-tonk revelry of "Jingle and Go" to the road trip ready "Pontiac."
"I always want to be optimistic and look at the brighter side of life and at the same time not ignore the harsher realities of the world. I've always been a big fan of songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Bill Withers," Bingham says. "Those songs were so profound and have so much to say, but at the same time they weren't patronizing or alienating in any way. It's something I definitely was conscious of when writing."
A tireless road warrior, Bingham knows a thing or two about music festivals. So it only makes sense that the country-rocker will launch his own festival this spring. The Western Music Festival will take place on April 12 and April 13 in Luckenbach, Texas. Bingham, the Old 97s, Colter Wall and more will perform.
Bingham says he wanted to curate a one-of-a-kind experience for fans.
"Over the years of playing music festivals -- a lot of the time music festivals tend to be just a big tent and a parking lot, "Bingham says, laughing. "They can be a bit stale and they just end up being like another stop on the tour. We just thought 'Shoot, if we're going to do this every year, why don't we put on our own festival and make it something unique and special that people really look forward to going to?'"
Holding the festival in Luckenbach, where he got his start as a young songwriter, is a full circle moment for Bingham.
"I was living around Austin and I'd go out to Luckenbach around the week. I'd sit out around the campfire with people and songwriters and really learn how to write songs and learn how to play the guitar," Bingham says. "I've missed that camaraderie and collaborative space to sit around the campfire with your friends telling songs and stories. So not only is the location special, but (we're also) just bringing that vibe back into it and making it a place where fans really want to hang out."
When he's not writing and performing, Bingham is keeping busy with a burgeoning acting career. Following his small role in Crazy Heart, for which he penned the Oscar-winning "The Weary Kind," and 2015's A Country Called Home, Bingham took on the role of Walker in the Paramount western series Yellowstone.
But, as he explains, the role wasn't exactly planned.
"I met the writer, Taylor Sheridan, when he was working on the project. He initially contacted me about working on the project and maybe just writing some songs for the show. Once we met and started hanging out, he found out I grew up riding horses -- my family ranched out in New Mexico -- so I grew up doing a lot of that kind of cowboy stuff. So he said 'Well, I oughta just write you a part in the show.' He said 'I'll just write something small' (and said) 'If you do good, I'll keep you in there and if you suck we'll just kill you off,'" Bingham says, laughing. "I'm still in there so far. We'll see how it goes."
Ryan Bingham will kick off his 2019 tour on March 19 in Salt Lake City, Utah. For a full list of tour dates, visit here.