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Gate Openers

cov ryanUp-and-coming artists like Ryan Bingham are a great reason to show up early to the Santa Cruz American Music Festival

Big & Rich, the country duo that brought us “8th of November” and “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” are the Sunday headliners for the inaugural Santa Cruz American Music Festival. But tucked up near the beginning of the day’s lineup is an underexposed gem of the alt-country landscape, Ryan Bingham. An artist who the KPIG- and No Depression-faithful are familiar with, Bingham is the real deal—a songwriter who, as Nashville country has taken a hard turn into Hollywood-style polish, keeps the hard living, misfit swagger of outlaw country alive.

A former bull-riding rodeo cowboy and ranch hand, with a rough and ragged voice that makes him sound far older and wearier than his 34 years, Bingham sings about trains, death, dust, and backroads from the perspective of someone who has seen hard times—and he has. Born in New Mexico and raised in West Texas, Bingham lost his mother to alcohol and his father to suicide, leaving him to raise himself as a teenager. His music is imbued with images of being on the road, trying to find a place in the world, and the quiet freedom that comes from being alone.

In “Never Far Behind,” a song about being haunted by the memories of people who are gone, Bingham sings, “How many times can I forget you / If you are always on my mind / I’ve tried so hard to outrun you / You are never far behind.”

Bingham is not a gloom and doom artist, though. His music feels like the open West, like driving across Texas with the windows down and no one else around, like a campfire in the desert and no plans for days. Bingham makes the blues feel like freedom.

In addition to Bingham, the American Music Festival plays host to some other early-in-the-day treasures, including Big Sam’s Funky Nation, a high-energy New Orleans funk band led by trombonist extraordinaire Sammie Williams; blues guitarist Ana Popovic, a Santa Cruz Blues Festival veteran who is single-handedly putting Serbian blues on the map; and Drake White, an Alabama-born, Nashville-based country singer-songwriter.

Playing early in the day at a festival means performing while people are still trickling in, wandering around trying to find a place to sit, but don’t be fooled, this festival’s lineup has no weak spots—all the artists are headline acts who pack venues and rake in accolades. For instance, Bingham has a résumé that includes winning both a Grammy and an Academy Award for his song “The Weary Kind” from the film Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges. The festival is a rare opportunity to see him and the other early acts do their thing before Aptos Village Park gets packed.

PHOTO: Ryan Bingham plays the Santa Cruz American Music Festival on Sunday.

Contributor at Good Times |

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on community, collaboration, the future of work and music. She's a regular contributor to Shareable and her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Yes! Magazine, No Depression, UTNE Reader, Mother Jones and Launchable Mag. More info: Follow her on Twitter at @CatJohnson.

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