Ryan Bingham's journey from bull rider to Academy Award-winning recording artist wasn't a straight line, but it was perfect fodder for his alt-country songs. The 30-year-old joined the rodeo circuit when he was a teenager, picking up a guitar along the way, strumming through small-town bars in his downtime while self-releasing albums with his band, the Dead Horses.
It was Bingham's first major release, 2007's Mescalito, that pushed the singer/songwriter into the spotlight thanks to its mix of influences, from Americana to folk to bluegrass to mariachi. Critics, eager to escape the pervasive shiny polish of new country, heaped praise on Bingham's scratchy, bottom-of-the-bottle vocals and his lyrics, which tended toward beautiful but world-weary poetry. The first song he ever wrote, "South Side of Heaven," was that album's debut single.
"It was just kind of about love," Bingham says with a gentle drawl. "I guess most of the songs are just about stuff that I've been through, you know, lived through or experienced in one way or another. It's not about any one thing in particular. It's just about a bunch of different things."
Years on the road helped Bingham cultivate his narrative songwriting style, and he continued to pen moody, genre-melting songs for the band's follow-up, 2009's Roundhouse Sun. Bingham says he writes from a personal perspective, but maintains that his songs are ultimately a reflection of his experiences.
"It's a combination of a lot of different stuff," Bingham says. "Just travelin' across the country and goin' overseas to Europe. The stuff you see every day, you just take all of that into consideration."
Bingham's world got a whole lot bigger following a meeting with director Scott Cooper, who wanted to make a film called Crazy Heart about a washed-up country singer who hits bottom. Cooper asked Bingham to contribute songs for the film and its soundtrack.
Bingham's song, "The Weary Kind," became Crazy Heart's theme song, and the film ended up being one of the year's best, ultimately winning Bingham an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Bingham chuckles, recalling that fateful meeting with Cooper.
"I just had lunch with the guy, and he told me a little bit about the film and the script and it was just kinda a real informal meeting and I had no idea anything would come of it," Bingham laughs. "And then a lot happened!"
Indeed, the last year and a half has been almost dizzying for Bingham. Capitalizing on Crazy Heart's popularity, Bingham's third album, Junky Star, came out last summer, peaking at No. 19 on Billboard's Top 200.
It's a more rock-influenced effort, but there's still plenty of twang. It also features his award-winning song, which is still one of the most achingly beautiful and broken pieces of music to ever sneak its way into the Academy's echelon.
Bingham's success hasn't gone to his head, though. He keeps a healthy sense of humor about how his two worlds, the rodeo circuit and the record industry, share plenty of similarities.
"The main thing is there's a lotta bullshit," he jokes. Bingham admits being surprised, initially, at the number of transferable skills between the two seemingly polar-opposite careers. "You spend hours and hours tryin' to get to a place where the performance part of it is just 10 percent of it, and the rest of it is just tryin' to get there, you know?"
He's also still measurably awed by how far-flung his tours now take him.
"When we were tourin' in Europe, goin' through Italy and playin' in these old castles and you know, some of the places you get to, it's like, man, what are we doin' here?" he laughs.
And though Crazy Heart gave him plenty of exposure, he maintains it hasn't made much difference in his day-to-day life.
"You know, still get up and put your pants on one leg at a time," he adds. "That's the biggest misconception. Everyone thinks you win an award like that and you get a million dollars, but it doesn't happen."
"You're still returning your empties to the store?" this reporter asks.