After watching disturbing events in our country unfold during the Trump Administration, Ryan Bingham really wanted to write a political album. The thing is, the more he dug deep into social issues, the more his own personal stories came out.
For instance, “Wolves”—a from-the-gut, stripped-down folk song—is on one level inspired by the Parkland students and the backlash they’ve gotten for speaking up. But it also is about his own experience as a kid who moved around a lot and was bullied. He mixed all these elements into a really complex, multi-layered song.
“It brought up a lot of old feelings,” Bingham says. “I was always this new kid in town wherever I went, and dealing with people who start fights with you. It’s crazy how we fall back into things. A lot of my own personal stories started to be woven into this, and my experiences of growing up in this country.”
The record, American Love Song, is a diverse country-blues double album produced by Charlie Sexton, known for his work with Bob Dylan. It jumps back and forth between the personal and political—sometimes, as with “Wolves” landing on both. Perhaps part of the reason they intersect so much is that he grew up in the small rural towns of the Southwest, some of them right on the border.
“Those towns have depended on each other for a long time,” Bingham says. “I met a group of guys that lived in Mexico, and they started taking me to these rodeos down in Mexico in Chihuahua, in Monterey and all these border towns. I wasn’t down there as a tourist, just kind of going across the border for the night. All those guys were so warm and welcoming me into their families.”
This process of digging into his own history caused Bingham to feel both a very sincere love for this country, and to also feel deeply disturbed by the direction Trump has taken it. He captures that feeling on the album by juxtaposing the sometimes-dark lyrics with some upbeat Stones-sounding rock ’n’ roll.
“It was a love letter, but I was a bit frustrated, kind of confused at what was going on and what has been going on in our country,” Bingham says. “It’s been a tough record to talk about in a way, because it has a lot of layers to it.”
It’s also quite a rootsy and raw album. For a short while, Bingham had a flirtation with the mainstream world, with his work on the film Crazy Heart—particularly the film’s worn-torn theme song “Weary Kind,” which earned Bingham an Academy Award. He didn’t stay in that place for very long.
“Before that happened, I was in a van with a bunch of buddies touring around playing dirty rock clubs all over the country. I didn’t have much of a career other than that,” Bingham says. “When that thing hit, it put me into the mainstream, but at the same time I was still this punk-rock-with-an-attitude [guy] playing country music.”
It seemed like there was a big career on the horizon for him, but he wasn’t happy with how his management wanted to market him, so his wife took over as his manager. Together they run his own record label. It’s a decision he’s happy with, as a bigger label likely wouldn’t have been too happy about an album so rootsy and thematically complex.
“I didn’t write the songs to have big hooks or to be very pop driven. It’s not really who I am,” Bingham says. “We started doing things our own way, and doing things in a way that I feel comfortable with. It’s been like that ever since.”
There are moments on the record where the political edge becomes more overt, like when he calls out Trump by name. But overall, it’s a much more fluid experience.
Bingham is often asked if the songs on the new album are “protest songs.” “I don’t know if they’re necessarily protest songs, but they’re songs about trying to have a conscience and being aware of what’s happening,” Bingham says. “It’s having a rational conversation. All these things that everyone else is experiencing, I’m right there with everybody else.”
INFO: 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 26, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $30. 423-8209.