Interview: Ryan Bingham Returns Strong With ‘American Love Song’
On Friday (Feb. 15), Ryan Bingham released American Love Song, his first new album since 2015's Fear and Saturday Night -- and despite the gap between records, there's no sign of rust at all. The album is loose and fully realized, with nods to all manners of country and Americana: stripped-bare folk, electrified twang, jaunty honky-tonk, mournful roadhouse ballads. The Rolling Stones are a major influence on the soul-rock boogie "Jingle and Go" and red-hot rocker "Nothin' Holds Me Down," although the acoustic, guitar-driven blues standout "Beautiful and Kind" is classic Bingham.
Above all, American Love Song is dense in the best possible ways, as it invites multiple listens. "It's been a difficult record to talk about, just because there's a lot of layers to it, and a lot of things are connected in different ways," Bingham tells The Boot. "It's been a bit difficult for me to ... I don't know, not necessarily to explain, but just go into detail about what anything's about in particular."
Bingham initially recorded demos and sent them to producer Charlie Sexton, who immediately connected with Bingham's sentiments; in fact, Sexton pulled a band together, and the songs started pouring out. "We literally all set up in a big room and took everything right off the floor, just cut the band live and took three or four takes of each song, and started overdubbing some camos and solo parts, things like that," Bingham recalls. "Everything was pretty much live on the floor. It happened very organically, which is pretty nice."
That live approach has a big impact on American Love Song's loose vibe and warm sound.
"You get lucky and you capture that magic in that one moment," Bingham says. "You're not going to get it again no matter how many times you do the song over and over and over. Even if there was that one verse where the guitar was a little out of tune or the piano played a sour note, there's something about that one take that's just it. And we keep it. That was our mentality with the whole thing too."
However, the musician was far more meticulous about his lyrics this time around, and pored over songs to make sure he was expressing himself exactly correctly. That approach works on "Wolves," which addresses the ways bullying manifests over time, while "Situation Station" ruminates on the byproducts of the current, polarizing U.S. political climate.
"That one came fairly easy," Bingham says of the latter. "I have to say, after our president was elected, and a lot of things that were being said and the rhetoric on the street was a bit frustrating, and just sad, in a way for me, to hear a lot of the stuff that was circulating around. Obviously, that song came to be about that."
Bingham stresses just a few moments earlier that he doesn't wants American Love Song "to be alienating for anyone" in general as they listen. "I've always been a big fan of how Woody Guthrie wrote political songs like "This Land is Your Land,"" he notes. "I remember singing that as a kid in school. Or Bill Withers, "Lean On Me," those kinds of songs that I played in school as a kid, and how powerful those songs were without being patronizing in any way."
Bingham recently spoke with The Boot about American Love Song's inspirations, working with Sexton and also what he's most looking forward to about curating The Western Festival in Luckenbach, Texas, on April 12-13. Read on for more from our chat.
This is your first record in four years. How did the songs unfold?
You know, I started taking it one song at a time, and it really turned into what it is now. It's a bit of a personal story. It's my story of how I grew up here in the States. If I could write a song, and an album of songs, that describe how I grew up, and all the places that I've lived in, and how the culture and how the politics have shaped me, this would be the album that does that.
"If I could write a song, and an album of songs, that describe how I grew up, and all the places that I've lived in, and how the culture and how the politics have shaped me, this would be the album that does that."
The title American Love Song obviously speaks to your point. But there's a lot of depth to that, because America is such an imperfect place. And when you grow up, things change, and things shift, and your perspective shifts as you age and get more experience. It is really interesting.
Yeah. [And] just all the characters, too, I've met in my life along the way. I really wanted some of these songs to be ballad-driven, and songs that I could play acoustically, and songs that told the story individually as well, but then also came together to tell that bigger story as well when you put them together. It's not something necessarily I set out to do from the beginning; it just naturally happened when everything came to a head.
Is there a particular song that when you hit on it, and wrote it, that you realized that you knew where the direction was going? Do any stand out to you?
Yeah. There's a song called "Beautiful and Kind" on there, that's a really simple ballad, and then there's not too much to it musically. It's one of the earlier songs I wrote for the record, and it just really set a tone for how I was feeling, I guess. A lot of these songs [have] really come directly of how the world impacts me and how I feel about it, and how I want to have a conversation about that or talk about it, and so once I started going down that road, I felt like that was the right place I needed to be in, if that makes any sense.
How did working with Charlie Sexton shape the sound of the album or your mindset for the record?
Charlie's fantastic. He's just a musical guy; he plays so many different instruments. A lot of these songs didn't have a lot of structure to them at the beginning. I wanted to really concentrate on the message of the song, and the story part of the song, and I really was looking for a producer that could help me arrange these songs musically. Whenever I started talking to Charlie about it, I really wanted to bring the songs into him in a rough form, so he could add his magic to them. He really helped me develop these songs, and arrange them in the studio.
We really had a lot of the same influences. When I was talking to him about guys like Lightnin' Hopkins, and Mance Lipscomb, and Terry Allen, and Townes Van Zandt, and certain kind of Stones records and different sounds I wanted to achieve, I didn't necessarily have to break out any records and play 'em for him. He just automatically knew what I was talking about. He got the band together, and we got in the studio. Right off the bat, it was happening.
That's so good when you find a producer where you don't have to explain yourself. You have that mental musical connection too.
It was wonderful. We come from the same area, and I've been a fan of his for such a long time, and respect him so much in what he's done, and how he plays guitar and piano. And I've been around him at shows, and seeing how he is onstage with other musicians -- He's a very humble guy. He's very gracious and very talented. He doesn't really have to tell you what he can do. He just sits down and does it. [Laughs.] Which I respect a lot.
It was just such a very creative environment. Nobody had any kind of guard up. There was a lot of free-flowing creativity. There wasn't a time where I felt guarded within the song, I never felt like he had an alternative agenda, like [he] wanted to add to songs to songwriting credit or things like that. It was a very welcoming environment to be creative and to throw ideas around and go with whatever was going to happen. It was a really great experience.
"A lot of these songs have really come directly of how the world impacts me and how I feel about it, and how I want to have a conversation about that or talk about it ..."
I wanted to talk a little bit about the lyrics. "Wolves" especially has been pointed out as one of those songs that's very personal to you on very many different levels. How did the song come together?
It's another one of those songs that's a bit layered, but a lot of it had to do with how I grew up. I moved around a lot as a kid, and was always the new kid in town. I was always having to confront someone wanting to pick on you the first day at school, wherever the new place you're going, and establish that pecking order.
So that [was] part of it, experiencing that growing up, fighting a lot and having to defend myself. Then [it came from] experiencing friends and other people as you grow older and see[ing] that happening to other people. And now here we are today.
I think a big thing that sparked it was the March for Our Lives movement that all these kids were getting involved in after all the school shootings, and hearing how people were responding to these kids and the kind of attacks and abuse. People were going after these kids who were just trying to save their own lives, basically. That's what really inspired me to kick off the song, and it's obviously mixed with a lot of personal history and things like that. That had a lot to do with it.
It's amazing how, no matter how much of an "adult" you are, certain incidents or things you see can toss you right back into being a kid, or a teenager, and those painful memories. They're never that far from the surface.
You can't learn to live without it; you just have to learn to live with it. It's never going to go away.
What was it like for you writing this record? Was it cathartic to address some of the things you did? What's your thoughts now that the record is done?
It was. It was a fairly emotional experience, definitely. There are moments songs made me cry, and some of them made me laugh. That's all part of it, and that's the reason why I really do it too. Songwriting's always been a tool in that way, for me to vent and get things off my chest.
I think some of my previous stuff ... I tend to be a bit lazy in songwriting, where I'll just keep the first thing that comes down, and I won't go back and revisit stuff. With this record I really went back and took a look at some of the things that I was saying, especially if it was political in any way -- just wanted to make sure that whatever I was saying wasn't going to be taken out of context, or at least I tried my best to get it down that way.
I'm proud of it. I'm excited about it. I'm looking forward to playing these songs live. It kind of is what it is. It's almost like I'm just describing a picture that's already out there in front of me. It's not something I'm making up out of thin air. It's just describing the world around me and how it makes me feel, in a way.
"With this record I really went back and took a look at some of the things that I was saying ...."
What have you enjoyed the most about being a festival curator?
Over the years, we've played a ton of festivals, and Texas has always been such a wonderful state for us to play in, and I've got a great crowd there. Some of the festivals these days can be a bit stale: There's a big tent in the parking lot, and there's not much hospitality, and there's not much of a vibe. I really wanted to get back to some of my roots with the festival. I used to spend quite a bit of time out in Luckenbach, outside of Austin, when I was starting out as a songwriter, and I really give that place a lot of credit to help develop me as a musician and a songwriter.
I love the atmosphere of sitting around a campfire with your friends and sharing stories and songs and just that kind of environment. So with the festival, I wanted to incorporate that storytelling. There's one night around the campfire, and just acoustic songs. Then have another day with full bands and have really good food, and then other stuff going on for kids, and just really making something unique. Almost like if I was having a party at my house and inviting all my friends to come over and jam in the living room. That's basically what we're doing.
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