Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses — Junky Star. Out 8/31, Lost Highway Records.
I walked out of a Ryan Bingham set once.
I’m not proud; I just want y’all to have all the facts. Two and a half years ago, he played the Local 506, American Aquarium opened, and I won free tickets to the show from Glenn. t. went with me. And I left early, halfway through Ryan Bingham’s set. Why did I walk out? I don’t know. I was bored. t. was bored. I was out of film. I ran out of money for beer. The crowd was wretched. It was late and I needed to go to bed. The novelty of being mean to BJ ran out. It’s a moot point: I walked out of a Ryan Bingham set two and a half years ago, a crowd of maybe 35, and I regretted it later. Because even though I walked out, I was intrigued enough by what I saw to pick up Mescalito the next week, to pick up Roadhouse Sun last year. The first I liked, and the second, I fell head over heels in love with. I spent a lot of time talking to cee about how amazing he was.
And I went to see Crazy Heart with my parents in January, watched Ryan in motion for the first time in two years, and was finished, completely, hopelessly smitten. I watched all the awards shows not because I cared but because I wanted to see him win for “The Weary Kind”, and when he did, when he got to give an Oscar speech up there all awkward in his false teeth (lost ’em all bull-riding before he quit to be a musician) and his tuxedo and the tattoos on the backs of his hands, I was so proud I cried a little. Even though I’d walked out of his set two years earlier.
Junky Star is a great album because it sounds like the next album in the progression of Ryan’s music. He could have made a Hollywood album — aimed for the mainstream radio play that he got from Crazy Heart, but Junky Star just sounds like Ryan. (Which is not to say that the songs he wrote or co-wrote for the film didn’t; I loved Jeff Bridges’ performance in the film but when I listen to “The Weary Kind”, it’s distinctly and utterly Ryan’s song for me. Just that the marketing aspect of the movie garnered those songs press that Ryan probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.) Listening to this album, what stands out most for me is how much of a straight up rock and roll album it is — “Strange Feelin’ In The Air” — and how heavily Ryan and Dead Horses guitarist Corby Schaub rely on blues phrasing and sounds — “Hallelujah” — as much as they rely on the sounds of pop radio or indie “country”. Certainly it’s an Americana album; the rasp and wail of Ryan’s voice, the mandolin, the fingerpicked acoustic guitar guarantee that name. But “Direction on the Wind” sounds more like Bob Dylan than Trace Adkins, and while Dylan obviously made some country leaning albums, I’d never say he was country.
Pigeonholing Junky Star does this album and Ryan the same disservice that pigeonholing any album into a genre does the artist in question; iTunes won’t let me call it “multi-influenced singer/songwriter with a great band” (well, it probably would, but that’s cumbersome and not necessarily a wide-ranging descriptor), so it’s country in iTunes. But the strength of Ryan Bingham’s songwriting, and his band’s musicianship, is why his albums are great. His willingness to take a risk in the sound of a song — the darker aspects of Junky Star, the back half of the album particularly, are creepy and heartbreaking in way that his voice was made for — makes him worth paying attention to.
Actually, the more I listen to this album, the more I hear Dylan filtered through the Southwest; so if that’s your bag, give Ryan Bingham a shot.