Ryan Bingham has been pondering the meaning of America lately — the optimism in the midst of struggle, the triumphs amid the losses. Men and women looking for a fresh start. Families like his, who pinned their hopes on the next town or job, always chasing that ephemeral dream.
Bingham has lived it all, and sometimes all at once. Just as his song “The Weary Kind,” featured in the 2009 movie Crazy Heart, thrust him into the national conversation — winning him Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe awards — he lost his mother to alcoholism and his father to suicide.
Nearly a decade and two albums removed, he’s pulled together a surprisingly upbeat, bluesy collection of songs that doesn’t shy away from big-ticket topics. American Love Song [Axster Bingham], out February 15th, is his most personal and political album to date, a rolling blues-country workout awash in slide guitar, soaring gospel-roadhouse stomps and meditative folk fingerpicking that takes on his past with a cautious hope for the future.
“This record is all about … these different pieces and moving parts of this country,” Bingham tells Rolling Stone Country. “It’s about growing up in all these different parts of America and experiencing all these different cultures … a bit of a love song and love story about getting through it all.”
Growing up on the margins in a ranching family set adrift, Bingham learned from the jump what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. His family’s land in New Mexico was gone by the time he was old enough to know it, scattering his extended family among the oil fields from Bakersfield to the Texas coast in search of steady work. The Binghams traveled light, and no matter where they landed, it never lasted.
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“[Before each move], my old man would pawn a lot of shit, and we didn’t have a lot of room to pack stuff,” Bingham said. “You kind of had one box and whatever you could fit in it, that was what you got to take.”
Festering drug and alcohol problems followed them from job to job and kept them on the move, never to the nice side of town. While each relocation may have been a chance to start over to his parents, for a schoolkid the revolving door was a challenge to navigate.
“It was kind of holding on to these little pieces of an identity as you moved around to these different places, trying to hold on to who you are, but at the same time you always had to adapt to this new situation,” he says.
Bingham learned to absorb new cultures out of necessity. In Houston, he befriended Wilbert Fleming, a rodeo kid from the rough Acres Homes neighborhood who introduced him to the black cowboy scene, local hip-hop like UGK, and Cajun cooking from his Creole grandmother. In Laredo, Texas, he rode bulls on the south side of the border and learned the Tejano standard “La Malagueña” on guitar, measure by measure, from one of his dad’s drinking buddies.
Laredo, as it turned out, was where he began to put together all the pieces of his story. The music he had grown up hearing — albums by Bob Wills, Allman Brothers and Townes Van Zandt, salvaged from the tavern on the old ranch — were a link to something permanent and rooted. The bull-riding he learned from his uncle gave him something to look forward to on the weekends, when he could take his mind off the construction and handyman work he picked up during the week. He eventually started bringing his guitar to the rodeos to sing and play for his friends.
“Jingle and Go,” the first cut on American Love Song, picks up Bingham’s story from there. Driven by honky-tonk piano with an assist from Taura Stinson’s inspired gospel backing vocals, Bingham sings about his early days playing rowdy Texas roadhouses for tips. Festive zydeco fiddle plays the hook on the rocking “Pontiac,” while Hill Country acoustic blues backs Bingham on “Beautiful and Kind.” “What Would I’ve Become” muses on how things might have turned out had he played it safe and settled in one of the dusty towns he bounced around growing up.
American Love Song turns outward on “Situation Station,” which calls out politicians — particularly President Trump — for “selling them lies” to the working poor, while pointing out, “In the end, we’re all waiting in the same station.” The hits keep coming on “Got Damn Blues,” an anthem of determination to overcome the ever-present chaos he sees around him.
Throughout the album, Bingham intentionally relates his American story from the melting pot of influences that define him.
“There are so many different walks of life, there’s so many different people,” he explains. “I feel like I’ve been shaped by all these different things, whether it’s music from different cultures, food, different languages, all that stuff.”
Down in the border towns like Laredo, where a narrow river carves through the landscape and divides two countries, the question Bingham poses on “America” lingers: “America, where have you gone? There was a dream you gave us once. Is it not for everyone?”
As a teenager, Bingham made trips across the Rio Grande with his friend Malacho, an American by birth who spoke broken English, to watch Mexican rodeos. Even though Malacho was an American citizen, he struggled knowing his prospects here were slim.
“He’s like, ‘What am I gonna do, Ryan, go mow lawns for a living or work at McDonald’s?’ When 10 of his cousins are, you know, making tons of money smuggling stuff across the border.”
Bingham doesn’t believe the current border narrative, that the majority of people crossing are “criminals and thugs.” From his own experience, he sees vulnerable women and children hoping to escape bad situations. Not unlike his own family all those years ago.
“I’ve helped some of them come across the border, and that’s exactly what they are — a lot of women and kids down there just kinda looking for a better life,” he says. “It’s pretty heartbreaking to me to see how anybody would not take some of these people in and try to give them a fair shot.
“These different kinds of people have taken care of me throughout my life and made me who I am. I feel like I’m as much a part of those cultures as I am anything.”