Alt-Country Troubadour Ryan Bingham Chases the Blues

On his new album, 'American Love Song,' Ryan Bingham goes back to his musical beginnings, with some help from Charlie Sexton.
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Ryan Bingham grew up in a family that was constantly on the move, something that has had a lasting influence on the singer-songwriter. His parents shuffled around the U.S. southwest in pursuit of work, a journey Bingham continued on his own starting at age 17. Along the way, he absorbed the border-town Tejano, southern Louisiana zydeco, and dusty, West Texas red-dirt country music of the towns he encountered.

On American Love Song (Axster Bingham Records), his sixth set of acoustic guitar–driven folk-country, Bingham sets his desert-parched rasp to a bluesy blend of influences, meandering among the musical styles that make up the soundtrack of his life. “I really wanted this album to go back to my beginnings,” he says. “I was trying to reflect all these different regions and places I’ve lived in while growing up, and throughout my life.”

Through a record collection assembled at a bar his parents operated in New Mexico, Bingham picked up a love for artists like Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bob Wills. For years after the business closed and the family ranch sold, that record stash became one of the only constants in his life as the clan hopped from oil field to border town and back again.

After recruiting longtime Dylan sideman and Texas guitar legend Charlie Sexton as producer and collaborator, Bingham went to Austin to create American Love Song. The track “Pontiac” layers Cajun fiddle over a stomping blues riff and dueling slide guitars. “Beautiful and Kind” is a droning, fingerpicked acoustic-blues homage to East Texas legend Lightnin’ Hopkins. And, of course, the record gives Bingham and Sexton plenty of opportunities to play off each other.

“We’d track together,” Bingham says. “I’d play an acoustic and he’d be on electric, and he’d show me new chords to play. He’ll pick up a guitar that’s completely out of tune and just make the chord up as he goes. When you can sit down and play guitar with someone like that, you just listen and absorb. It opens a lot of doors.”

Bingham talked with Guitar Player about working with Sexton and bringing his blues-country vision to life on American Love Song.

The track “Jingle and Go” refers to your days playing in roadhouse barrooms, and it sets the tone for American Love Song. How did you get your start?

In those days, I didn’t have very high expectations that I would have a huge career as a musician. I worked a lot of day jobs during the week, and a lot of it was hard, manual labor. I’d go out after work and play in some of these bars and make a couple hundred bucks playing for tips each night. That was about as much as I would make all day digging ditches for someone. So I was half doing it to support myself and half doing it because I was writing songs and had things to get off my chest.

There’s much more of a blues feel on this album compared to your previous work.

I wanted to make a blues record that had an acoustic kind of country sound, with Cajun fiddles and a kind of Beggars Banquet-esque sound and feel to it. I always loved how the Rolling Stones did country songs. I felt like those recordings tied in with a lot of different regions — West Texas and Austin, South Houston and Louisiana, and Laredo, where you have the mariachi and the conjuntos. And then there’s the Cajun zydeco blues stuff from Louisiana and East Texas, and the swing from up north — Bob Wills, and all that. Those are places and sounds that I wanted to incorporate.

Bingham and Charlie Sexton

Bingham and Charlie Sexton

How did you come to collaborate with Charlie Sexton?

I met him in Austin when I was hanging out with Joe Ely and Terry Allen. And then a few years back, I had an opportunity to tour with Bob Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket, and Charlie came out and played guitar. We got to hang out a lot more on that tour, and we just had a lot in common. Every now and then we’d run into each other. A couple of years ago, Terry Allen put on some shows in Austin, and Charlie was in the band. I sat in for the weekend and had an amazing time. I always respected how he treated other musicians and everybody onstage and was just a nice person to be around.

He’s a great guitar player, too. Did his presence as producer impact your playing or the tones that you gravitated to?

Yeah, it definitely did. He’s played with a lot of the people who have influenced or inspired me. We were sitting in the studio one day, and I had this song, and he asked, “What do you want to do with this?” I said, “You know that Taj Mahal song, ‘Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes’?” And he played the lick from the song. “Yeah, that one!” And he said, “Oh yeah, I played that on that record.” And then there were moments where I would reference how an acoustic guitar sounded on a Stones record or something, and he would say, “I was talking to Keith Richards about that one day and he told me how they did that.” So after he’d tell me that, we’d grab a couple of [Gibson] J-45s, stand back four feet from the mic, and boom, we’d get that vibe going. I didn’t have to call him and tell him who Townes Van Zandt or Terry Allen was, or talk about Lightnin’ Hopkins. I’d send him the demos and he’d be like, “Oh yeah, I got you, dude.” We didn’t really have to talk about it.

You played all the guitars on your album Tomorrowland, but you and Charlie play together on the new songs. How did those collaborations happen?

He often had ideas for guitar parts already in his head. For example, on “Jingle and Go,” I didn’t have a demo of that song because I had originally written it on the piano. One day, I was just playing the lick from it and singing, and Charlie said, “Man, what the hell is that?” I told him it’s a song that I’ve had for a long time and never done anything with. So he got on a piano and I got on a Wurlitzer electric piano, and he said, “Just play it like you’re playing it and singing.” He started playing another lick on the piano, and at the time I didn’t really understand what he was doing. It just felt kind of wrong. So we tracked it, and when he came back and played his guitar part on the recording, it all harmonized and came together. He did that quite a bit, where he would write these parts on the piano having already thought out the guitar parts, and it would always amaze me how all that would come together in the end.

You’re into vintage instruments and gear. What did you pull from your collection for this record?

I’ve got a handful of guitars here at the house, and I’ve got a good friend named Jim Jordan in Houston, Texas, who’s a big collector, and he’s always bringing guitars over for us to try out and play. I really leaned on some of his guitars on this record. He had a ’54 gold-top Les Paul that we played a lot. I’ve got what I think is a 1930s “World’s Fair” [Century of Progress] Gibson acoustic. I used it on “America” and “Beautiful and Kind.” We also used a bunch of Charlie’s guitars. He has some nice Gibson J-45s. I have to say, once Charlie got ahold of that gold-top, it was pretty hard to get it out of his hands. Between that guitar and the World’s Fair guitar, those two just had that thing.

Was there a pile of amps to choose from?

We had just a Fender tweed and a Vox. And we didn’t do a lot of overdubbing. Most of the tracks were cut live, aside from the background vocals. That was how we approached everything.

How much does the Ryan Bingham we hear on American Love Song resemble the guy who came up playing in those taverns and roadhouses?

A lot, especially on this record. Originally, I’d planned to make a ballad-driven record and a very stripped-down acoustic record, and it just kind of turned into what it did. But I really wanted to go back to the roots of sitting around with an acoustic guitar and having something to say and telling a story, and then having that evolve into something I would enjoy playing live with the band. And I hope it does.