The forces at play that decide which artists make it, which artists become superstars, which artists struggle for their entire careers, and which artists completely fail and move on to other things are many times adjudicated simply by happenstance. Who gets their chance in music is such an imperfect science that talent itself—which is so hard to define on its own—or even personal drive, are notches below in importance to chance meetings with influential music business people, or exposure to the right personalities that have the ability to launch an artist. The appetite of the public at a given moment for what an artist is offering for consumption can also play a huge factor.
In 2008, when Ryan Bingham and Hayes Carll made up the new generation of Lost Highways Records’ artist stable, the future looked very bright for the two songwriters. They both had that grit and old soul flavor to their music, the support of the Texas scene, and a seemingly endless road of possibilities before them. Bingham’s ceiling was raised even higher when 2010 saw his song “The Weary Kind” from the soundtrack of the movie Crazy Heart winning a Golden Globe, then an Oscar for Best Original Song at the 82nd Academy Awards.
But after finishing out his three-album development deal with Lost Highway, Bingham gleefully grabbed the reigns of his career and launched his own Axster Bingham record label (Axter is his wife), excited to stretch his wings after being under control of the “corporate record world” as he put it. 2012’s independently-released Tomorrowland saw Bingham assume the producer’s seat that had been filled on his previous projects by T Bone Burnett and former Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford. Both these famous names helped cultivate Bingham’s early “classic rock for a new generation” vibe, while Tomorrowland, though solid, seemed a little bit too anxious to strike out creatively instead of honing in on Bingham’s ability to convey something authentic.
Creative freedom is not always as fruitful as some artists feel it will be when they claim to not have it, and though Bingham’s career remained formative, it also felt a little adrift for the last year or two. The big Academy Award win hadn’t catapulted him, partly because it felt like Ryan didn’t want it to. The arm swung, but he held tight to the sides.
To prepare for his new album Fear and Saturday Night, Bingham sequestered himself in an Airstream trailer in the California mountains without electricity or phone service, and drew inspiration from his tale-riddled and troubled life performing in rodeos and watching his mother die from alcoholism and his father commit suicide. Yes, pretty sunny stuff. The result was a re-imagining of his former musical self, not wholly different, but reinvigorated from the original voice which made him a promising young upstart in 2007.
Fear and Saturday Night might be Bingham’s best album yet. This is an album of all peaks and no valleys. As the perfect experience for the classic rock buff hiding in every country and Americana fan, Bingham scrapes the grime off the sweaty denim of 70’s Stones and douses it with a little Dylan poetry set to grooves left in the residue of a Faces studio session and articulated with riffs that awaken the spirit of a freer time in music. Though more interpreting than original musically, Bingham puts a personal stamp on the material by bringing his own experiences to the lyricism, while the infectiousness of the guitar licks make just about everything hard to hate.
The first song of the record “Nobody Knows My Trouble” unfolds like a Wikipedia entry of Ryan’s personal life, yet is just as much poetry as when he takes the spirit of Dylan and instills it into the soaring epic of “Island In The Sky.” If there was one essential track, it might be “Radio,” which is right out of the Ronnie Wood / Keith Richards playbook for riff swapping. “Top Shelf Drug” takes the approach of making you succumb to harsh tones until you’re convinced they’re cool, while fans of songwriting will gravitate more to tracks such as “Snow Falls in June,” or the biographical “My Diamond Is Too Rough.” “Gun Fightin’ Man” which finishes this installment of Bingham music is both intricate in its composition, but gritty and unraveled like the rest of this very loose and live album effort.
It’s hard to not think of Ryan Bingham as new because he comes from the next generation of Americana performers. But he’s proven over the last eight years, he’s not an upstart anymore, he’s a stalwart of the subgenre.
Fear and Saturday Night is quite enjoyable.
Two guns up.
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