Interview: Ryan Bingham, Hollywood Cowboy

The Oscar-nominated songwriter on rodeos, bulls and hanging with the Dude

Ryan Bingham Credit: Stuart Nicholls/Photoshot/Getty Images

Long before he was an Oscar nomi­nee, Ryan Bingham was a real-life cowboy, a handsome roughneck living out his own version of a Cormac McCarthy novel. As a child, he traveled around Texas and New Mexico while his, dad shuffled between oil-worker jobs. At 17, he left home and joined the rodeo cir­cuit. "I could hang on a few bulls," says Bingham. "And the guys I was rodeoing with, we all took care of each other. They became my family." He rode bulls all over the Southwest, got his two front teeth knocked out by a particularly volatile beast and drunkenly rode a horse down a Main Street wearing nothing but cowboy boots. "It was a fucking adventure," he says. "Every weekend on the road somewhere, another town, bar fights somewhere — it was fucking crazy."

Along the way, Bingham began play­ing a battered acoustic and singing for his rodeomates, who liked what they heard. The broken teeth — plus a broken leg, a broken hand and a few cracked ribs — persuaded him to leave rodeo and give music a chance. He spent the next few years on the dive-bar circuit. "I was basically homeless," he says. "I don't know how we made it from day to day." His fortunes improved when he scored a deal with Nashville alt-country label Lost Highway, which released Bingham's first two albums of tuneful, Steve Earle-style roots rock — both were well-received but left him far from famous.

All of which makes the Academy Award, nomination — for "The Weary Kind," the theme from Crazy Heart, which stars Jeff Bridges as an aging singer-songwriter — seem extrernely weird to Bingham, whose aw-shucks demeanor is about as Hollywood as sour mash whiskey. "It's really great — and hilarious," says Bingham, 28, who has already won a Golden Globe for the song. "At these Hollywood events, I'm laughing on the inside."

Last year, Bingham caught the attention of Crazy Heart director Scott Coo­per, who invited the singer to contrib­ute to the soundtrack. Bingham drew inspiration for "The Weary Kind," which he wrote with T Bone Burnett, from the script and from his own life: "I played hundreds of no-name bars and met a lot of guys like Bad Blake."

"The Weary Kind" is an elegantly wast­ed ballad about a troubadour who has drunk too much and spent too many nights strumming away in shitty bars. The song showcases Bingham's main asset: an old-as-the-hills croak. The voice hints at all the rough times Bingham spent on the road in a way that his friendly demeanor doesn't. "My voice got that way from blowing it out in smoky bars with crappy PAs," he says.

Bingham, who lives with his wife in L.A.'s Topanga Canyon, plans to start working with Burnett this spring on a third album. Bridges thinks that Bingham — who appears in a bowling-alley scene in Crazy Heart — should act. "He said he'd help me out," says Bingham with a laugh. "He was like, 'Come on, man, it will be fun!"' For Bingham, though, get­ting to hang out on the set was enough of a Hollywood thrill. "Somebody asked me what the best part of the movie was," he says. "I was like, 'Smoking a joint with the Dude at a bowling alley!' Like, what the fuck, man?"