One problem I’ve run into with my taste in music is that the majority of the artists I like tend to be, well, dead. My favorite guitar player (and everyone else’s), Jimi Hendrix, died eleven years before I was born. John Lennon died six months before I was born. I didn’t start listening to Townes Van Zandt until after his death. Even when I discover somebody relatively contemporary, like, say, Elliott Smith … well, you know what happened there. Given this ongoing problem, I take special pleasure in finding a young artist whose albums I’ll get to listen to for years to come. Someone like Ryan Bingham.
I discovered Bingham the way many of his fans did, in the film Crazy Heart, for which Bingham wrote (along with the omnipresent T-Bone Burnett) and performed The Weary Kind, which won him an Oscar (a rare case of the Academy actually giving the award to someone who deserves it).
I liked Crazy Heart, even if it’s totally corny, and I loved Bingham’s song, with the finger-picked guitar, the imagery of dusty roadside bars and whiskey-soaked dreams, and Bingham’s deep, gravelly voice, which Rolling Stone memorably described as sounding like “Steve Earle’s dad.” So I started looking around for more of his stuff. I was already hooked, but when I found videos of him singing The Times They Are A-Changin’ and This Land Is Your Land at the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, I knew this was a guy whose worldview meshed with my own.
I’ve already spent 250 words rambling about how much I love this guy, and we haven’t even gotten to the subject of this post, Mescalito, Bingham’s 2007 studio debut. He has a lot of great music in his catalog, but I think his strongest work to date is on this album. Bingham was just 25 when Mescalito came out, but he’d already lived a lot of hard years: born in New Mexico, he spent years as a rodeo cowboy in Texas (in interviews, he has described having his teeth kicked out by a bull); in addition, I’m reading between the lines here, but the theme of having a bank repossess a family farm appears way too often in his songs to be a coincidence. You can tell that Bingham isn’t making this stuff up–his hardscrabble stories come from his own life.
And man, those experiences come together to form a kick-ass album. My favorite songs are the sad ones that evoke trains and high plains and lonely highways. Mescalito opens with South Side of Heaven, the album’s signature track, a long, shuffling acoustic blues infused with harmonica that features lyrics that evoke a road-weary traveler’s search for a heaven he just can’t seem to find: “On the south side of heaven, won’t you take me home/Cause I’ve been gone for so long and now it’s getting cold.”
In the same vein, there’s the mournful Don’t Wait For Me, a slow country-blues number that’s a classic warning to not wait for the rambling man, but which Bingham somehow makes fresh. The last verse, in particular, is a favorite of mine: “Don’t wait for me/Sleepin’ in the summer sun/Don’t wait for me/With my pillow lies my gun/Don’t wait for me/I’m gonna finish last/Don’t wait for me/I’m mending fences of my past.” Here’s a live performance of the song that I particularly like.
Bingham doesn’t only do slow, sad songs. He’s got a couple of great upbeat tracks on the album, like the floor-stomping slide guitar jam Bread and Water, which features guitar work from former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford (who produced the album for Bingham). To me, the best of these is Sunrise, with its inventive guitar chords and suggestive chorus: “Oh, my my, see them girls shake their ass underneath the sunrise/Oh my, my, taste the sugar on their lips under that moonlight.” If there were any justice in the world, this would be a platinum-selling single that would get played at every party in America.
But as great as Bingham’s uptempo work can be, my favorite tracks will always be the slow sad ones (I know, I’m so predictable). The highlight of the album, for me, is the penultimate song, Best of Me. The first couple minutes of the track are just Bingham chatting–he hears a train whistle and jokes “There’s always gotta be a fucking train”–and noodling on an acoustic guitar before he begins strumming the chords. The pace of the song is leisurely, and the lyrics take an almost epistolary form, as Bingham describes writing letters and making phone calls to his family:
“I think I’ll go on and call my mama
Tell her nothing you ever did ever drove me away
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stick around
Just I couldn’t find the courage in the bottom of the bottle to stay
“Well I’ll write my old man a letter
Well then tell him that everything will be okay
And even if you can’t give up on the drinking
Well I guess I couldn’t either and I’m still gonna love you anyways
“Well I’ll call my sister out in Vegas
Well and tell her to roll the dice for me
And if you happen to roll you a seven
Well I hope you can buy you a pretty house out in L.A.”
I don’t know about y’all, but for me, that verse has everything. The loneliness of the road, the longing for home, the inability to pull yourself away from the hard life you’ve fallen into (or chosen). I can’t find a good version of Best of Me on YouTube, so if you want to hear it, you’ll just have to go and buy Mescalito. If your taste in music is anything like mine, that’s ten dollars you won’t regret spending.