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.

A profile of underground legend Eric Haas. From the back-files of TSJ 9.1.

Eric Haas is a mystery. Regularly short-listed for “best all around big-wave charger on the North Shore” during the 80s and 90s by connected insiders, he has remained all but unknown outside of the 808 area code. Had he cared about such things, he might have been perturbed by the willful ignorance on the part of the surf media. But Haas has never really been media friendly.

A troubled fellow, he operates outside of any bureaucratic considerations. There have been difficulties with family, and the law. He lives between the seams, and catches his waves where he can find them. Variously, he lives with an uncle near Ala Moana, in the kiawe bushes of Kalalau Valley, or (reportedly) in a storm culvert near Makaha.

Regular TSJ contrib and ex-North Shore lifeguard Jeff Johnson related Eric’s vibe, if not his life story, in our pages back in 2000. If you missed it, enjoy. If you caught it, reacquaint yourself with one of the practice’s most sideways and legit participants. —Scott Hulet


He’s one of the best surfers in the world and you’ve probably never heard of him. With a legendary reputation and high praise from world-renowned watermen, he remains an enigma, a single soul drifting through a life of countless waves. His name: Walter Eric Haas. His age: 33. His home: anywhere in Hawaii.

Brian Keaulana: “One of the most talented surfers ever. When I think of true watermen, only a few guys come to mind and Eric’s one of them. Like my father or George Downing or guys like that who pioneered big waves and lived the ocean lifestyle, he lives that life of a waterman. He can fish, dive, and surf anything you throw at him. Nowadays, the attention seems to be focused on equipment instead of ability, and Eric’s ability is to utilize his surroundings to the fullest, to use what’s available. The equipment is the guy, not the board. At the lifeguard run- swims, where you’ve got well-trained guys in Speedos and all the right gear, Eric will show up in pants or whatever and no goggles and smoke ’em. Never been taught, just his own style—hot.”

Haas won’t be seen on the North Shore for months, but on the best day of the year you’ll overhear guys that night at Foodland or Sugar Bar talking about him getting the wave of the day and pulling off the heaviest maneuvers. Like the time he paddled out at perfect 15-foot Hanalei Bay and got the tube of the year, soul arching and stroking the roof of the barrel with both hands, only to return that evening to do it again under a full moon. Or at 12-foot Sunset riding a lifeguard rescue board fully clothed and getting big barrels, spinner drops at the Eddie Aikau contest on a borrowed board, windsurfing on a rescue board using a trash bag as a sail, and fin-first takeoffs at nasty Haleiwa. He’s surfed tube after tube beneath huge cliffs on the Napali Coast alone and with no leash—never a leash. And his boards? Mostly borrowed or taken from countless stashes in the bush, always beat up and usually ancient. Longboards, shortboards, big guns, rescue boards, single-fin, twin-fin, thruster, or no fins. Frontside, backside, switch foot or headstands, in 2- to 20-foot surf, he does it all.

Nowadays, the attention seems to be focused on equipment instead of ability, and Eric’s ability is to utilize his surroundings to the fullest, to use what’s available. The equipment is the guy, not the board.

Eric was born in San Diego and moved to Oahu when he was three months old. His parents, busy dealing with their own lives, were at times unable to keep him within close range, thus leaving it up to the Waikiki beach boys to help raise him. He a lived various backstreet dwellings, and learned to surf at the Waikiki Wall using whatever flotsam he could find. While spending endless hours in the water, his skills were sharpened by watching guys like Buttons, Larry Bertlemann, Dane Kealoha, and many seasoned beach boys. By that point, several father figures had taken Eric under their wing, one of them being Ben Aipa, who gave him free boards and encouraged him to compete in local contests.

Brock Little: “He was the king, the best kid. We used to surf in the Menehune division (under 12) and he was way ahead of his time doing frontside and backside 360s. He rode for Aipa, getting free boards and stuff. You were bummed if he was in your heat ’cos you knew you were gonna lose. He used to win ‘super heats’ where you take all the winners from each division and throw them in a heat. He’d take them all. He’d even take down guys like Derek Ho, who was quite a bit older than him. Just phenomenal.”

After blowing minds as a youngster in the competitive world, Eric dropped out—a blessing for the other kids who now had a chance in the contests. He then began a life as a vagabond islander, living anywhere possible, dividing his time between Oahu and the outer islands. It wasn’t until the winter of ’88 that he surfaced, sending a wild buzz through the Hanalei community. Ripping the Bay with power and style reminiscent of earlier standouts like Bill Hamilton and Joey Cabell, Eric made a name for himself.

“Brudda Waltah” (as some people call him) is difficult to find. You just don’t call him or stop by. You put the word out and through a bizarre chain of events you’ll eventually connect. A friend of mine received an assignment to interview Haas, and knowing how I’ve always wanted to write about the elusive legend, he asked for my assistance. We told the lifeguards at Ehukai about our plan and immediately the coconut wireless was clogged with rumors of Eric’s whereabouts, and consciousness. (Depending on who you talk to, his state of consciousness is often in question.) Since all our leads seemed fruitless, we simply waited. Weeks later, we received a phone call claiming Eric would be at the Sunset Beach lifeguard tower before dusk. Classic Eric Haas. Mysterious yet punctual on his own terms, a complex man borrowing time from his simple life to commit to a scheduled meeting. We were lucky it only took two weeks.

His parents, busy dealing with their own lives, were at times unable to keep him within close range, thus leaving it up to the Waikiki beach boys to help raise him. He lived in various backstreet dwellings and learned to surf at the Waikiki Wall using whatever flotsam he could find.

Haas showed up at Sunset Beach as planned. He looked as healthy and clean-cut as I had ever seen him. He was freshly shaven, hair-trimmed and combed, and was sporting a new gingham-patterned outfit, shirted tucked in, of course. He was excited, a bit nervous, and you could tell he didn’t really know why we wanted to interview him. Extremely humble, he doesn’t even realize how incredible he is. And because of this lack of ego, it was difficult to get detailed replies from our self-inflating questions. In turn, this left us with a less than desirable outcome. Like his surfing, it’s not always what he does, but how he does it.

Because of his bouts with certain controlled substances and other related difficulties, it is sometimes hard to understand where Eric is coming from. It is apparent he lives in his own world but will occasionally step into ours. Some might say he’s a little off, or a bit spacey. But I feel that beyond the crazy sımile and confusing speech lives an intelligent man way ahead of his time, laughing at the outside world. Needless to say, one cannot help but notice Eric’s abounding humility, inflexible respect, and genuine compassion for others.

The interview became more of a “you had to be there” thing than a piece to write about. So I took it upon myself to tell some of the many legendary stories that have circulated throughout the Hawaiian Islands. I researched the ones that are not of my own account, getting firsthand information so that I wouldn’t be spreading myths.

On an overcrowded day at Sunset, 10 to 12 feet, Eric was seen in the channel paddling a lifeguard rescue board with a canoe paddle while standing up. Designed only for rescues, this board is difficult to ride in 2-foot surf, let alone huge Sunset. He casually stroked past the bewildered crowd and in one swooping turn connected with a giant wave outside the pack. With paddle in hand, he began a deep fade. Negotiating the large crowd and movement of water, he drew out a long bottom turn, stuffed his paddle in the face, and pulled himself into a gaping, stand-up barrel. Gliding into the channel, he simply paddled to the sand, stepped off his board, and walked to the tower leaving the hardcore arena in awe.

Eric has the habit of training in unorthodox fashions, including running, swimming, and surfing fully clothed. His theory? “Doing these things with all my clothes on is very difficult, so when I just have trunks on, I’m that much faster.”

During another big day at Sunset, he was seen swimming in the turbulent rip wearing a jacket, an aloha shirt, and jeans. Upon coming in, he took off the jacket, grabbed a rescue board, and paddled back out. Again, guys not knowing who he was likely wrote him off as a kook. But to everybody’s surprise, he caught a few bombs and pulled into huge barrels wearing his aloha shirt and jeans.

His most pronounced attribute is his ability to have an every-day surf in the ugliest and most adverse conditions. You’ll drive by Rockpiles (a dangerous stretch of beach even at 3 feet) and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see a tiny dot streaking across a lumpy, outer reef beast. It’ll be Haas, just getting a few all by himself.

Joe Golonka (veteran North Shore lifeguard): “Super waterman, as good as it gets. He has some weird ways of training—swimming in his clothes, stuff like that. But when it comes down to his water knowledge, he’s as good as any. He’s strong, fearless…a little different. I was working water patrol at the Eddie Aikau contest and he was doing switch-stance spinner take-offs. Everyone else was taking off at the same spot and just making the wave—pretty impressive. I wish he was still working with us, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Eric’s most pronounced attribute is his ability to have an every-day surf in the ugliest and most adverse conditions. The surf could be 20 feet with howling north winds and rain…a day when any kind of surfing is out of the question. You’ll drive by Rockpiles (a dangerous stretch of beach even at 3 feet), and out of the corner of your eye you’ll see a tiny dot streaking across a lumpy outer reef beast. It’ll be Haas out there just getting a few all by himself.

November 17, 1996. Rain poured all night long accompanied by thunder and lightning. Certain parts of the North Shore were completely flooded. The following morning gave way to one of the biggest and ugliest days I’d ever seen. Chocolate brown water, a thick lingering mist, and storm surf clouding the horizon—25 to 30 feet. As a part-time lifeguard, I was called to work Waimea Bay, not thinking of this day as even being ride-able. Eric had been up all night partying at a friend’s house at Sunset Beach. At the crack of dawn, he paddled out through the channel between Phantoms and Backyards with a swim fin tucked into his trunks. A mile outside he realized how big it was. Being so far out, and with the mist so thick, he was unsure of his whereabouts so he decided to paddle the three-or-so miles down to Waimea. To insure his safety, he set a course way outside the deadly outer reefs. Once he got to Waimea, he was out to sea. The handful of guys that surfed that day saw him paddling in from the haze outside of the bay, looking as if he had come from Kauai. They shook their heads realizing it was Haas.

A few moments later, Eric took off on what he claims to be one of the biggest waves of his life, easily making it into the channel. Then, suddenly the horizon darkened, the cars lining the bay began honking their horns, and the lifeguards yelled through their megaphones as an enormous closeout engulfed the bay. Of the ten or 12 guys out, not one had a chance. From one end of the bay to the other, a giant wall of immeasurable height proceeded to jack, boil, and hurl forth the thickest of lips.

Once he got to Waimea, he was out to sea. The handful of guys that surfed that day saw him paddling in from the haze outside of the bay, looking as if he had come from Kauai. They shook their heads, realizing it was Haas. A few moments later, he took off on the biggest wave of his life.

The wave bulldozed everything in its path, thrashing men like rag dolls, crushing boards, and snapping leashes. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt, just scared shitless, as the wave surged up the river and into the beach park. Only a few guys still had their boards as the rescue jet ski helped the others in. One of the guys that swam in on his own accord was Eric.

Because of the heavy rains, the river mouth in the accessible corner of the bay collided with the shore pound displaying a frightening force of nature. Swimming with sheer animalistic force, he battled the confusion for some time and finally made in. I watched from the road as he casually sauntered up to the tower to chat with the guards. After a few minutes, he noticed his board had washed up to the park bathrooms a good 100 yards from the waterline.

Glad to see it hadn’t disappeared, he grabbed it and ran back to the corner. Amazed, I asked him what he was doing and he softly replied, “Look, no crowd, gotta take advantage.” He jumped back into the turmoil and squeaked past the shorebreak unscathed (a maneuver that earlier took some Waimea regulars 20 to 40 minutes of multiple tries). For the next few hours he surfed the bay, his actions seeming effortless and his attitude equal to that of a boy riding 2-foot Chuns.

Owl Chapman: “Probably the most underrated surfer there is. There’s a lot of guys making a lot of money, and he’s twice as good as they are—makin’ nothing. He’s ridden a lot of my boards. I tell him to keep his chin up, to have faith, but that only carries you so far, you know? We haven’t seen the last of Eric Haas. He’s the best big-wave rider in the world…”

Eric embodies the very essence of surfing: a free spirit, totally natural amongst all elements. His innocent approach is virtually unaffected by the outside world, allowing him complete freedom of self-expression. Even the acts of purists these days seem quite intentional— well-planned and thought out. He doesn’t know these things, and why should he? To him, surfing is as innate as eating and breathing, the ocean is his life and he lives it well. Many people like to go surfing, whereas Walter Eric Haas, well…he is surfing.

Lately he has been working as a beach boy giving surf lessons in Waikiki. He might be found near the Duke Kahanamoku statue in front of stacks of rental boards. If you are lucky enough, you might get to learn from a legend. Just ask around, put the word out. I can’t guarantee you’ll find him within two weeks.