Ryan Bingham is happy. For someone who memorably sang on his last album, “Some say the angels are all looking down. I only saw vultures circling around,” this marks a seismic shift.
That release, 2012’s bleak Tomorrowland, dealt with the aftermath of his parents’ deaths — his mother from alcohol and his father by suicide. Though their loss still weighs heavily on his mind, Bingham has more good days than bad now, in part due to the upcoming birth of the singer-songwriter’s first child with wife Anna Axster. On Fear and Saturday Night, out today, Bingham explores the newfound joy of having someone by his side as he moves from the dark into the light.
Recorded with a new band — Bingham disbanded the Dead Horses after 2010’s relentlessly dark Junky Star — Fear and Saturday Night‘s spirited journey combines Rolling Stones-type swagger on tunes like “Top Shelf Drug” with jubilant Texas Tornados-styled Tejano on “Adventures of You and Me” and shuffling country on the autobiographical opener “Nobody Knows My Trouble.” The songs, written while Bingham secluded himself in an Airstream trailer in the California mountains, are often stripped down and spare, keeping the focus on the singer’s weatherbeaten rasp.
Bingham recorded the album over the course of a month at producer Jim Scott’s (Wilco, Tom Petty) studio in Santa Clarita, California. “He’s got fucking drums, guitars, motorcycles and shit that he’s been collecting in there for 30 years,” Bingham says. “It’s like an adult playground. He’s got a bar in there and pinball machines, and I was like, ‘This is fucking great.'” His favorite distraction? A Dolly Parton pinball machine, circa the 9-to-5 era. (Bingham is a superfan of the country legend — more on her later.)
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Most people’s introduction to Bingham was “The Weary Kind,” the theme to the 2009 film Crazy Heart, that he penned with T Bone Burnett. The tune, performed by Jeff Bridges in the movie, snagged the pair the 2010 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
That shiny hardware didn’t change Bingham’s life much other than bringing more people in to see his live show. Instead of capitalizing on his sudden fame, he chafed at the spotlight and the intrusion of handlers and hangers-on such attention brings. For him, ever since he released his first major label album, 2007’s Mescalito, it’s all been about control. While he has nothing but good things to say about his former record company, Lost Highway (they parted ways before the release of Tomorrowland), the Universal Music Group-owned label “still had to play by the rules of the big guys [who] didn’t even really know who I was or cared.”
Just before his new album’s arrival, Bingham talked to Rolling Stone Country about moving past his parents’ death, love’s restorative power, what kind of tattoo he hopes his child never gets and where he keeps his Oscar.
It‘s all relative, but you sound positively ecstatic on this album, especially compared to Tomorrowland. How did it feel to come out the other side?
Great. It was just a really heavy time, and I was like, “Fuck, I have got to make it out of this.” I was in a bad place, but it was just part of life. It was a time in my life where I had some really serious stuff happen to me. I still remained optimistic throughout it, but it was just like, “Man, I have been digging this hole and digging this hole, and I have not found China yet. If somebody doesn’t drop the rope, I can’t get back out, so I’ve got to dig my way out of this motherfucker.”
What was your frame of mind when writing this album? It is, at times, unabashedly romantic.
Marriage was the one thing that helped pull me through a lot of that stuff. That’s been the one thing in my life that’s been so stable. So [the album is about] Anna, the baby and life ahead of me. It’s about stuff that’s going on — good stuff. The stuff with my parents, that was all Tomorrowland. I had to deal with all that. I even went and talked to a therapist and got professional help, and it really did help a lot.
There are still some dark clouds here, but most songs have silver linings. Were you afraid that you would sound like a Hallmark card on any of the tracks?
No, I was stoked about it, because I’ve got to get out there and play those songs every night, too. That was the most miserable tour after that last record. I was like, “God, somebody just shoot me.”
“Broken Heart Tattoos” is a letter to your child, but you wrote it before you found out your wife was pregnant, right?
Over the past couple of years, we’d been talking [about] if we wanted to have kids or not. We had it in our minds. You start thinking about, “Wow, what would I have to say to my kid if I had one?” And that was kind of how the song began. Then, a few months later, [Anna] told me she was pregnant, so it was like, all right, I got that one down.
When your child gets his or her first tattoo, what do you want it to be?
Something that’s spelled correctly. No cartoon animals. Something that at least has some kind of a meaning.
Your parents were not the best role models in some ways, but what are some qualities that you‘d like to pass on to your child from them?
My parents were good people. They got into a bad spot and didn’t know how to get themselves out of it. But I remember my mom being super witty and fun, and her personality was just amazing. My dad, as well. He would give anybody he knew the shirt off his back. He was always a hard worker, and it was just, unfortunately, the road of drugs and alcohol, and the mix of depression, and all this other stuff they were going through. They couldn’t find their way out of that.
You wrote this album in an Airstream in the mountains. You don‘t like hanging out in a regular studio to write, do you?
I can’t stand studios. When I started playing, I kind of lived out of my truck. I had a camper set on the back, and I’d just disappear out in the desert, or find these real desolate places and set up camp for a while and hang out. I still miss parts of that, when I was just rambling around out there.
Do you need solitude to write?
Yeah. I have to be alone to really reflect on what’s been happening in my life. I’ve never really been able to sit down with pen and paper and just formulate a song, or craft a song about it. You know, okay, I’m going to write a song about a baseball player. I’ve never been able to do that.
How long did you rent the Airstream for?
A couple of weeks at a time. I’d been looking for a cabin where I could lock myself away and write for a few weeks, and Anna actually found it on Airbnb. . .This guy had, like, 50 or 60 acres in the mountains, and he’s restored these two old Airstream trailers from the Fifties and rents them out. You felt you were in Mexico, or something. I’d get up in the mornings and go surf, and then go back and just write all day and night. Whenever I got stuck, I would go for hikes and just stomp around in the mountains. There were mule deer and coyotes everywhere. It was great.
What was the first song you wrote for the album?
“Nobody Knows My Trouble.” I spent about two days up there before I could write anything. It felt like forever. Nothing was happening, and then, finally, I took some whiskey up there, and I was, like, fuck it, I’m just going to have a few drinks. I got about half drunk up there and about 1:30 in the morning, I grabbed the guitar and that song just came out in about 10 minutes.
You‘ve worked with Jim Scott, T Bone Burnett and Marc Ford. Is there anyone else you‘d love to have produce you?
[The Black Keys’] Dan Auerbach. That record he did with Dr. John, I love that record. I’ve heard some other stuff that he’s done that I really like. The guy from Spoon, [Jim Eno], and also the guy from Radiohead that produces and did There Will Be Blood, [Jonny Greenwood]. Jeff Tweedy’s another guy that I’d really like to work with.
Let‘s reverse it. Is there a legend you‘d love to produce or work with like how Jack White worked with Loretta Lynn?
If I could write a song with anybody, it would be Dolly Parton. I think she’s a fantastic songwriter. She’s a very smart, talented woman. “I Will Always Love You” is one of the best songs ever written.
The album closes with “Gun Fightin‘ Man,” which sounds like something straight out of a spaghetti western.
It’s a really old song that I’ve had for a while. I’ve always loved those old gunfighter movies, and Gunsmoke. I wanted to record that song, but I didn’t want to send out the wrong message about gun violence and things like that. I believe in owning guns and everything, and I’ve grown up on ranches and always had a rifle in the truck, but I don’t know if having an AK-47 in my house is something that I need, or that some people should need.
Do you ever pick up your Oscar, or does that time seem like another life to you?
I don’t even know where it is right now, to be honest with you. . .Well, I do know, because we’re having some construction on our house. We had to move out for a few months. But I don’t get attached to things very easy, just moving around growing up, I had stuff taken away from me so much that I got to where I just didn’t get attached to stuff anymore.
That seems almost fitting given how future-focused you seem to be on the album, especially on its penultimate track, “Hands of Time,” which is about moving in only one direction: forward.
Yeah. Quit looking in the rearview mirror and just start looking out the windshield.