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Ryan Bingham Q&A
Captain Guitar, The Confused Professor, And A Hobo: The New World Of Ryan Bingham
By Michael Devers
Jun 2008

Monday night at Saengerhalle was open mic night. This was back in late 2002 and I booked the venue so I occasionally dropped by to check in. Without fail, there was always this skinny kid in a too-big-for-his-head cowboy hat. He made an impression on me for a number of reasons. I'd like to say his songs were one of those reasons, but in truth, they didn't really grab me back then. Instead, it was the man (or kid, I guess – he was only 21) more so than the music that stood out. He was always grateful for a chance to get up and play, was extremely supportive of the other performers and took everything in stride. I never did book him for a weekend, but it didn't bother him at all. He was there every Monday night playing his 2 or 3 songs when it was his turn. He'd greet me with a big smile and an offer to buy me a beer as soon as I walked in.

Six years later and much has changed for Ryan Bingham. He's making an impression on plenty of folks these days, and it's all starting with his songs. He signed to Lost Highway Records in the spring of 2007 and that fall put out his first national release,Mescalito . The album has started to receive national press from the likes of the Rolling Stone and others including a three-page feature in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. His first national television appearance was on one of the biggest stages for any performer these days, The Tonight Show and an appearance on Conan O'Brien is on the schedule. All of this at the same time the second single from his record, “Bread And Water” was gaining steam at radio. “Is it?”, he asked when I mentioned it to him. “The label said it was going out soon so I'm glad it's doing good for ‘em. It's hard to keep up with that stuff on the road.”

So while much has changed for Ryan Bingham the artist, not much has changed for Ryan Bingham the man. He's still grateful for every day he gets to make a living at music and his ability to take it all in stride might keep him sane as the rocket he's strapped to is now beginning to break free from the clutches of gravity. It's still too early to say exactly where the rocket will wind up, but it's definitely going somewhere.

t was afternoon in early April when I made my way out to Los Angeles to catch up with Bingham and his band as they were working on the follow-up to Mescalito . The article in the L.A. Times had hit the Sunday before and then on Tuesday they received the invitation to appear on the Tonight Show. The week wasn't all roses and champagne though as in-between the article and the television call, their van was stolen from right outside of the studio. “I guess they thought the trailer was connected, but it wasn't”, said drummer Matt Smith. So though they made off with the van, all of the gear was either already in the studio or locked in the trailer. The van was empty, with the exception of Ryan's signature cowboy hat (he wears it on the cover of Mescalito ) and a single eagle's feather. The thieves wouldn't have had any idea of the feather's true value.

The Feather

In January of 2006, Ryan and Matt appeared at MusicFest, the annual weeklong Texas Music pilgrimage to Steamboat Springs, CO. Needing a change from the scene in Texas and ready to try something new, Ryan and Matt decided to flip a coin to see where they would go next. Heads – Los Angeles; Tails – New York City. The coin landed on heads and the pair headed west from Colorado. Unfortunately their timing was not great and a pass coming out of the Rockies had just been closed. With extremely limited resources, turning around was not an option so they decided to try it any way. They made it – barely – but when they came out on the other side, they were left with little fuel and no money. Arriving at a last chance gas station in the middle of the night, Ryan peeled the sticker off of the back of a check card he had forgotten about and swiped the card. It worked (Ryan still has no idea how as he later found out there was no money in the account), and they took off again with a full tank of gas.

During the trip down out of the mountains, Ryan and Matt made a pit stop at the home of Ryan's Uncle Clay in New Mexico for some rest, food, and a little bit of money to keep traveling on. An old rodeo friend of Ryan's, Lucas, showed up at Uncle Clay's. When Ryan & Matt told him about their journey, he insisted they visit his grandfather, a medicine man on a nearby reservation, for a Native American blessing.

“It was wild. Normally they never would have let us in there for the ceremony, but since we were with Lucas they were cool with it”, Ryan explains. The ceremony was lengthy and after the blessing, the ancient medicine man presented Ryan with an eagle's feather. After they left, Lucas told Ryan and Matt that they never gave an eagle's feather to anyone outside of the tribe and they had something very rare and very special. Bingham speaks of the evening as the most spiritual event of his life. He also bears a tattoo of the feather on his right forearm to signify the ceremony, and they have kept the feather close by and treated it with reverence ever since. That is until the morning of March 31 st , when thieves stole a van and in doing so unknowingly made away with a religious artifact.

“ e get twice as much time and twice as many guitars and amps for this one”, guitarist Corby Schaub says as I ask him about working on the new record. “I'm not saying we rushedMescalito , but we had to get it done in like four or five days. This time we've got two weeks.” When I later point out that even though they had two weeks they recorded the basic tracks in only four days, Matt grins. “We can't help that we nailed it.”

The new record finds the band reunited with producer Marc Ford, engineer Anthony Arvisu and recording again at Compound Studios where the bulk of Mescalito was recorded. Located on the edge of Signal Hill in Long Beach, Compound Studios is a former cabinet shop transformed into a magnificent studio, complete with scenery running the gamut from two turtles in a koi pond to an old pump jack station. With fifteen foot high ceilings and coarse wood surfaces, the cutting room adds a palpable energy to full band sessions.

I arrive on my first day to a private discussion between Ryan and Marc over the song “The Highway”. Marc returns to the control room from the conversation to inform the band the song has been cut. “I understand his reasoning and the end result is we're not doing it”, he announces. Despite some obvious tension, Marc assures me the next day the discussion wasn't heated, just frank.

“The Confused Protestor”

Much of that day is spent working on a brand new song. So new, in fact, the band had yet to play the song together. While the song bristled with energy, you could still feel this is a unit much more accustomed to honing their material in front of a live audience as opposed to the studio environment, even one as organic as the Compound.

I asked Ryan what the name of the song was so I'd have it for the story I was writing. “I don't know yet. I just make shit up”. Later in the day he decided he might call it “The Confused Protestor”. “He's not really sure what he's protesting about. All he knows is if you've got something, he's against it”.

The band was all in the same room together to cut the basic track. Not only that, they were all situated in a circle so they could face one another, the lone exception being Corby who was playing mandolin on the track and had to sit on the other side of a glass door.

Bingham started the track on hollow-body electric, but when it wasn't gelling the way the band expected it to he switched to acoustic guitar and slide and things began to lock in.

During the course of working up the tune, producer Marc Ford was everywhere. Not content to sit behind a wall of glass and monitor the process, Marc is a living, breathing part of everything laid down. Joining the band on guitar live as they played their way to Los Angeles from Texas, Ford seems personally invested in every note, tone and nuance going on the record.

“We call him Captain Guitar”, Ryan tells me. “For one part of this new song called ‘Changes', we tuned a dozen acoustic guitars to open E and then had Marc play electric through a big Marshall stack set up in front of that rack of acoustics. We made him wear a motorcycle helmet painted with the American flag and a cape when he did that.”

For today's tracking, Marc has left the helmet and cape on the shelf, but is still playing a heroic electric guitar with a tone that is all razor blades and high-tension wire. His vision for the track was lots of mountain instruments, but in the end it was decided you couldn't do a 21 st century protest song with all acoustic instruments. Even if you have no idea what you're protesting.

The Long Road to Mescalito

While the entire band is proud of Mescalito they view the new record as a chance to show what they can really do. “This is the first chance we've had to really do a whole record from start to finish”, Corby observes.

The first sessions for Mesaclito started as a much different record back in early 2005. Ryan had returned from a failed attempt at appearing in a wild west show in France when he and Carlton Moody (then with Burritos Deluxe) decided to do a record together in Nashville. Ryan would lay his parts down and then leave it up to Carlton to piece the rest of the album together.

“I was with Ryan the day he got that CD in the mail from Nashville”, Matt remembers. “We were listening to it and all of the changes they made and we were like ‘What the… this is not right'”. Ryan was so disgusted with the final product he put it on the shelf with no intention to ever put it out.

The album languished for over a year until Ryan met Marc Ford after a gig at the King King in Hollywood. The two of them clicked immediately and when Marc said he wanted to work with Ryan on a studio project, Ryan responded with, “I've got this record…”

Marc and Ryan stripped off all of the syrup from the Nashville studios, and replaced it with West Texas grit. The result was the ten track album, Dead Horses , a limited release from LoneStarMusic in December of 2006 which is no longer available, but still highly requested.

Shortly after the CD's release, Lost Highway expressed interest in Ryan's career. For his first album with the label (also the home to Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and more), Ryan would once again turn to the same source material for the bulk of his next record. Nine of the ten tracks from Dead Horseswould eventually find their way (with even more tweaking from Marc Ford and the band) on to Mescalito along with five new Bingham tunes.

Almost three full years after laying down the opening guitar chords, Ryan's debut album would be released nationally on October 21 st of 2007.

“Hobo”

The bulk of the second day I spent in the studio was spent refining another new Bingham tune called “Hobo”. Marc recorded several guitar parts for texturing and he also added some keyboards to the song with Mike Malone, who had surprised the band earlier in the sessions. They were laying down the basic tracks for the song when Hammond organ licks suddenly started coming through everyone's headphones. Inspired, Mike had snuck in, mid-track. “I heard them playing that one and I thought ‘I got to get a piece of that'”, Malone explains. They didn't keep that take, but liked the idea. Malone returned on this day to make his contribution in less sneaky style.

The song is Bingham's take on a don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover tale. With the increased press coverage Ryan receives these days, it's a subject he faces regularly. Take a look at any article written about Ryan and you can't make it two paragraphs without some mention of how his voice belies his age. Listening to the lyrics of “Hobo”, one gets the sense the song is a metaphor for the questions Ryan now finds himself answering on an almost daily basis.

New Dead Horse

Ryan built his band in the same manner a craftsman builds a home. One piece at a time. Drummer Matt Smith joined him the day after meeting him for the first time at Larry Joe Taylor's annual Texas music festival in 2005. He had only heard a couple of songs around a campfire and the very next day played a gig with Ryan at Woody's Tavern in Fort Worth. “I had my rock and roll thing going on and I'd never played a shuffle or a train beat in my life. We just got up there and played for three hours”, Smith explains. That Monday he called his rock band's independent record label and told them, “I got some shit I need to do. I'm on break.”

Ryan and Matt continued to play as a two-piece until Smith successfully cajoled guitar and mandolin player Corby Shaub into leaving his hill country band and teaching job to join them in Los Angeles. “I finally had an apartment of my own and a new truck and a good job. I was pretty happy with where I was at. But these guys wouldn't leave me alone.” Shaub left the job and apartment to go to Los Angeles. The new truck was eventually repossessed, but the band had an invaluable third member; one who could play any stringed instrument you put in front of him.

Finding the last piece of the puzzle proved to be more difficult. After a false start with Jeb Stuart (the bass player who appeared on Mescalito – “He was a singer/songwriter also and just needed to do his own thing”, Matt tells me), Ryan, Matt, and Corby have agreed on Elijah Ford on bass. Elijah is young – he passed his test and received his driver's license during the recording sessions for the new CD – but being the son of Marc Ford has afforded him more experience and skills than players twice his age.

I expected him to be a frustrated guitar player stuck on bass (he played rhythm guitar in his dad's band on tour), but instead I heard a player completely in tune with the groove of the song. There was no mindless noodling or “four-string leads”. Though Elijah had only been a member of the band for two months going into the recording, he and Matt were already locked together as a solid unit.

I'm obligated to admit a certain period in the early nineties where I watched the Black Crowes video, Who Killed That Bird Out On Your Window Sill? , at least once a month for about…. oh, let's call it a year and a half. The film documents the making ofSouthern Harmony & Musical Companion , the best work of the Crowes and the first record to feature Marc Ford.

Though their ages were different (Marc was 26 then and Elijah is 19), I was struck not only by the physical resemblance between the two, but also by the poise and confidence they each brought to their first major recording. “It helped having him on the road in my band before that”, Marc states when asked about Elijah getting the Bingham gig. “But first of all his playing made him worthy of the part.” I've learned enough about the Dead Horses to know the truth of this statement. If Elijah hadn't been up to the test he may have unexpectedly found himself on a stretch of I-10 somewhere east of where he wanted to be.

West Coast Horizon

With Mescalito still building an audience it's unlikely the label will release the new album anytime soon. There's still one more recording session scheduled for August of this year and according to Kim Buie at Lost Highway, the CD probably won't be out until January or February of 2009. As with everything in his career, Ryan takes this in stride. “We've been playing a lot of new stuff live and it's good to get these down now.” He's lived with parts of the current record for going on four years, but Ryan knows for the vast majority of America (and Europe, for that matter), there's still a lot of life left in Mescalito .

We took a break from the studio for a road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway. Ryan drove as I rode in the passenger seat of his ancient suburban, pressed into duty once again with the band's van stolen. This is the same vehicle that made the original trip from Texas up to Colorado, and then west to Los Angeles for the first time. A trip that included a detour in New Mexico to pick up a feather. If it's a shrine it's much more Fenway Park than Sistine Chapel. The ceiling adorned not with frescos, but with the signatures of what look to be hundreds of musicians who have crossed paths with Bingham and the Dead Horses over the years.

With next year's record mostly finished and new opportunities opening up for him frequently, Bingham continues to feel blessed for each day he is able to play his music for a living. He thinks back to the coin flip in Colorado that set everything in motion. “We had a lot of stuff go our way. I guess we were in the right place at the right time.” Ryan pauses here as he gazes out at the waves breaking on the Pacific Ocean. “Of course, I don't know how you can be in the right place at the right time if you never go anywhere.”




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