Despite its title, Fear and Saturday Night, the fifth LP from Texas singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham, is the happiest record of the 33-year-old's career.
That's not to say it's all wine and roses for the rock 'n' roll troubadour, but there's more light in these tunes than ever before. "I've been carrying my trouble/ In this bag strapped to my shoulder/ Ever since I was a baby/ I've been running from everything I know," he sings on the bouncy opener "Nobody Knows My Trouble." It's a familiar sentiment in his music that is belied by the warmth and coziness of the arrangement. Elsewhere, like on the Tejano swing of "Adventures of You and Me" or the plaintive ballad "Darlin," Bingham is more concerned with declarations of romantic love than the dark interiors of the heart and mind he explored on Tomorrowland (2012) and Junky Star (2010).
Still, the rough grit and resignation in the voice of the singer is still there, and it's well-earned. He rose slowly on the Americana scene, playing bar gigs at night while working the rodeo by day before signing with Lost Highway in 2007. From the start, Bingham was praised for his old-soul style, something that seemed to have sprung unexpectedly from his hard living.
Bingham himself, though, does think his subject matter is a bit inconsistent. "It's always been a bit weird," he says. "I don't know if it ever becomes more natural. I guess I never knew how bad things really were at times because it was just all I ever knew."
Now, having suffered the loss of both parents in recent years — one to alcoholism, the other to suicide — but also having settled into married life with a baby on the way, Bingham has a new perspective. "It really wasn't until I was older that I started seeing how other people lived in the world and realized that maybe the environment I was raised in was pretty fucked up," he says.
In addition to the more even keel in his personal life, Bingham also finally has some distance from the runaway success of the Oscar Award-winning "The Weary Kind," a powerfully simple tune co-written with T-Bone Burnett that played a central role in the film Crazy Heart. The song's coronation during the 2009 award show season rocketed Bingham into the spotlight with a more mournful and stark aesthetic than the rollicking Roadhouse Sun, the LP that immediately preceded the film.
While he largely denies the weight that his Oscar success put on his career — "If I was trying to capitalize on the success of Crazy Heart, then I would have put 'The Weary Kind' on the Junky Star album," Bingham insists. That argument is undercut by the fact that his album, like the soundtrack, was produced by Burnett and leans toward the style of the well-known track. The song was later tacked on to the end of the digital versions of the album as well.
Regardless, after Junky Star, the singer/songwriter parted ways with his long-time label Lost Highway, as well as his backing band The Dead Horses, and started releasing records independently. As Bingham would later tell Rolling Stone, it freed him from "still having to play by the rules of the big guys [who] didn't even really know who I was or cared."
Now though, with a new, relatively upbeat record to tour on, Bingham can see how his writing has shifted and responded to the turmoil of his life, particularly over the last few years. "It's definitely all in there. I didn't really realize it at first, but now that I look back at it, I can see how different phases of my life are reflected on each album," he says. "This is the first time in a while that I've had some stability in my life. I definitely have felt it and realize how bad I needed to change the things going on in my life to get here."
Bingham is touring with a new backing band, who also helped record much of the record, something that adds to the air of a fresh start that this year's Fear and Saturday Night marks for him. "I'm really excited about touring with these guys," he says. "It does feel like a permanent band, and we are all pretty stoked. I haven't been this inspired to play music and live life in a long time."