Feature

Interview: Ryan Bingham

On cutting his musical teeth in rodeo trailers and honky-tonks, picking up surfing on a hungover morning in wind-slopped Corpus Christi, and the parallels between riding waves and riding bulls.

Similar to surf culture, status in the world of country music stems from a blend of authenticity and talent. Skill is essential, but immersion in a certain lifestyle is a requisite toward singing believably about certain topics and with resonance. Singer and songwriter Ryan Bingham is no exception. Rolling Stone has described his voice as a “weather beaten rasp.” His albums, while full of joy and beauty, are balanced with the darkness, imagery, and heartbreak of a Cormac McCarthy novel. His 2012 album Tomorrowland, for example, was themed primarily around his parents’ deaths—his mother from alcohol, his father by suicide.

Born in New Mexico before drifting throughout West Texas, Bingham first picked up a guitar at age 16. He also spent a good deal of his formative years as a rodeo rider and a hitchhiker—learning mariachi tunes on beer soaked porches, riding bulls, writing music in trailers, and playing the occasional barroom. At some point along that journey he found himself hungover in an alien environment: along the shoreline in Corpus Christi, where he first sampled surfing.

Emerging as a musician in the 2000s, Bingham’s first two studio albums, Mescalito (2007) and Roadhouse Sun (2009), were critically acclaimed and built his credibility among some of the most influential names in country western songwriting. He then partnered with Grammy-award-winning producer T-Bone Burnett to co-write tracks for the Jeff Bridges’ film, Crazy Heart. That collaboration, most notably his performance and co-writing of the film’s theme song, “The Weary Kind,” won him an Oscar. Since then, he’s produced several more albums, with his most recent, American Love Song, coming in early 2019.

I first met Bingham through Keith Malloy, who was working with him on a forthcoming series of short films called Midnight Hour. The premise was to have Bingham record with a variety of musicians he respects and finds influential to his own music. One of the names on the list turned out to be Jack Johnson.

On the morning we flew to Oahu’s North Shore for the shoot, all I knew about Bingham was that he was a country star who had some vague attachment to wave riding. Generally, when you hear that a rock star surfs, the immediate assumption is that they ride a soft top. On our first day in Hawaii, however, I watched him paddle out on a 5’8″ quad and handle his business.

We caught up again recently for a chat at his home in Topanga. I unfortunately forgot to bring beer, so the first order of note was to find a case of Modelo at a nearby market. Afterward, we sat and drained a few bottles in his home studio, the walls around us adorned with his quiver of guitars and surfboards, an assortment of chaps, ropes, and spurs, a poster of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and Bingham’s high school rodeo-trophy belt buckles.


JJ: You grew up pretty far from the beach and surfing. You did rodeos and rode bulls as a kid?

RB: I’m originally from Hobbs, New Mexico. It’s a small town close to the Texas border. My family all worked in the oil fields. We moved out to Bakersfield for a few years when I was 6 or 7 years old. Then we packed up and went back to Texas, to Odessa and Midland, where there’s a lot of oil work. And then we spent time down in Houston, down in Laredo and all along the border for a couple of years. But we ranched—we had cattle and sheep and my uncles rode bulls and roped. They got me into riding steers in the junior rodeos when I was 11 or 12. It’s like Little League Baseball down there.

JJ: And that was what you wanted to do professionally?

RB: Yeah. I rode steers and roped calves and then got into riding big bulls. The top guys make big money now with the PBR, but that was all just starting when I was going. Back then, there would be a pen of bulls at a rodeo and maybe like two or three bulls in there were really, really bucked and bad—bulls that might hurt you. We’d call a bull like that rank, you know, a rank bull. Over the past 15 to 20 years, they’ve started breeding these bulls like racehorses with genetics and all that stuff. You go to the PBRs now and every one of those bulls is rank.

JJ: So they’ve got it down to a science?

RB: We were smoking joints and taking pulls off the whiskey bottle before the rodeo. Nowadays these guys are doing yoga and a thousand sit-ups and shit before they go. They’re athletes. We were just rodeo bums. Or I was.

JJ: I’ve seen that some of the guys wear helmets and vests now. Is that a controversial thing?

RB: Not anymore. It was when I started. We didn’t even have vests or anything like that. When these bulls started getting real bad, a couple of guys got killed from getting hooked or stepped on. The vests help. But with the helmets, the old school cowboys will still be like, “Look at these fucking pussies wearing helmets.” I’ve seen some guys that just got demolished because they weren’t wearing them. You don’t see a lot of guys wearing helmets out at Pipeline or other heavy waves, huh?

JJ: There was a time in the 90s where guys were wearing them, but you don’t really see it that much anymore. But I mean, shit, they’ll save your life. Did you ever get hurt?

RB: Broke my leg. Broke some ribs. I bit my lip off and knocked two of my teeth out and cracked down on the rest of them. Just sheared them off. That was the worst one. I head butted a bull and it just tomato-faced me. It was weird. It didn’t knock me out and I actually was just, I guess, in a state of shock. I was walking around saying, “It ain’t shit.” And other people were like, “No, you’re not good. You need to go to the hospital.” A buddy drove me. My face was like hamburger meat. I was holding it together with a dishrag.

JJ: Was that when you got into music, playing in little honkytonks and bars?

RB: When I was living in Laredo, a guy taught me how to play the guitar. Then I started riding bulls with these guys and I’d ride in the backseat of the truck and make up little songs about our adventures. Every now and then we would spin into a bar somewhere and they were like, “Get your guitar and play that song you were singing.” I started getting gigs like that. It wasn’t too long afterward that I got a job working for a rodeo company in Del Rio, Texas, called Bad Company Rodeo. The owner, Mac Altizer, found out I could play the guitar and sing some. He was like, “Man, I’m going to get you to play the after-parties at the rodeo.” So they would pull a flatbed trailer up there and put a speaker up and build a fire. I’d ride bulls and then I’d play the guitar afterward. I was like, “Fuck, I get to all the things I love all at once.”

I bit my lip off and knocked two of my teeth out and cracked down on the rest of them. Just sheared them off. That was the worst one. I head butted a bull and it just tomato-faced me. It was weird. It didn’t knock me out and I actually was just, I guess, in a state of shock. My face was like hamburger meat. I was holding it together with a dishrag.

JJ: And that kept you going?

RB: When I was old enough to be out on my own I went down to Austin. I was maybe 19 or 20. I was there for four or five years in the hill country. That’s where I really kind of cut my teeth. When I started out I knew three chords and a couple rodeo songs and how to punch out a guitar. I didn’t know how to play with a band or about tempo—just no foundation in music. In a lot of the roadhouses, people wanted to dance. They didn’t want to hear some kid get up there and play these old ballads and story songs. They just wanted some lively stuff that they could party to and get drunk and fight. So I’d play the same song over and over, only a little faster each time. I just started making shit up and figured out what worked.

JJ: What brought you out to California? Was it to pursue music?

RB: It was more to pursue my wife. I met her out here and I didn’t really have anything to go home to in Texas, as far as like a home or any family or anything like that. I was living on the road anyway. I had kind of put in my million miles, playing 250 shows a year, playing every night, never sitting still. I just really enjoyed it out here.

JJ: Did you get into surfing before or after you got out here?

RB: I’d gone once before. A buddy of mine named Clay Blaker had a dad who used to own a surf shop in Corpus Christi, called Blaker Surfboards. We had a friend named Bubba Daniels from Reliance, Tennessee—just a redneck from the sticks who liked to party all the time. Clay started taking Bubba down to Corpus and taught him how to surf and just changed his whole life. I remember we were staying at a buddy’s house and I came home from the bar one night at, like, two in the morning. I had just got these tattoos of feathers on my arm and I was drunk. Bubba goes, “We’re going surfing in the morning. So whenever I tell you to get up, get up. We’re going.” He woke me up at four and I crawled in the back of his car. We drove through the night and I woke up as the sun was coming up. We were on the beach. I thought it was pretty cool. I didn’t have any shorts or anything. I just had these Wranglers on and a pocketknife. So I cut off my Wranglers and had some shorts. It was maybe half-a-foot windswell but we just had so much fucking fun. We surfed all morning long and got so sunburnt and my tattoo was bleeding everywhere. I was a total train wreck, but just absolutely hooked.

JJ: So then when you got to California you kept at it?

RB: Actually, Bubba came to visit me out here and we surfed a couple of times. I just got my ass handed to me every time I’d go but I went twice a day until I got it. I think my wife thought I was having an affair or something. When I’d get home from the road, I’d get up at four and get there right at sunrise. I need that getaway from the madness. The lifestyle on tour isn’t conducive to you’re health—those hours, partying way too much. Once I’m done with it, I want to get completely away from it. My son tells me that I should go surf somewhere for a week before I come home from a tour.

We drove through the night and I woke up as the sun was coming up. I didn’t have any shorts or anything. I just had these Wranglers on, and a pocket knife. So I cut off my Wranglers and had some shorts. We surfed all morning long and got so sunburnt and my tattoo was bleeding everywhere. I was a total train wreck, but just absolutely hooked.

JJ: It probably got easier to surf as your music career got bigger.

RB:  We don’t go for more than six weeks at a time anymore. When I got to California I was still touring in a van, just beating up the road. Then after a couple years I wrote a song for the film Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges that won an Oscar. That was kind of my big break. Not long after that I got a call from Rusty Preisendorfer, the shaper.

JJ: No way.

RB: Yeah. Rusty sat next to my manager at some benefit or something and they talked about my surfing. And Rusty asked if I’d want to shape a board. Then he got in touch with me. I went down and shaped a couple of boards with him at his place in San Diego. I got a single-fin in the back of my truck out there that I did. And those [points to wall] in the corner are the other two boards we did.

JJ: So he made you three boards?

RB: We did them together. He was like, “If you want to just come pick one out, that’s cool.” I was like, “No, I want to shape one, you know?” And he was like, “Hell yeah, come do it.” He showed me the shaping machine but I wanted to do it by hand, with saws. So I spent a couple days down there with him. He taught me how to cut a blank with a handsaw down the rails. After the first one, he pretty much let me do it on my own.

JJ: We had a chance to surf on the North Shore when we went. How’d you feel going out there?

RB: I wish that I had a little something bigger under my feet. It was such an amazing experience, but it was really crowded and I felt like it would’ve been really disrespectful to just paddle straight to the front of the line. I’d love to go for a month and just be able to surf every day. Because even on the third day I was there, I started to read the water a little better and figure out how everything was moving. It was crazy how much water was moving and how fast it would rip you out there.

JJ: You got a couple of good ones though. There was a photo that came out of it.

RB: I’d never seen a picture of me surfing before. I put it on my wall in my room, and then the Malloys were here and they saw it. And they were like, “What are you doing? That’s just funny.” They’ve seen pictures of themselves surfing their whole lives. I used to have some bull riding pictures from when I was younger that I hung up. And my wife gave me shit about that. She said, “What’s this? You got your little bull riding shrine to yourself?” Surfing and women will keep you humble like that.

Illustration by Alan Vest.