Ryan Bingham isn't the first cowboy to dig rap, but what's unique to the Johnny Depp-ish Americana singer-songwriter is that he developed an appreciation for hardcore Houston hip-hop at the rodeo.
Though calf-roping and barrel-racing — and Bingham's music — don't seem to have much in common with trunk-rattling beats and bejeweled bridgework, the former bullrider got his "Dirty South" education at the African American rodeos in Houston that he went to with fellow Westfield High roper Wilbert "Six-Pack" Fleming. At singer Johnny Nash's Indoor Arena, slow, bass-heavy, "chopped and screwed" tracks tore out of the speakers to hype the crowds between competitions.
"UGK, Geto Boys, DJ Screw — I was into all that stuff," Bingham says from his home in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife of three months, German filmmaker Anna Axster.
When Bingham started playing his own music, he sounded more influenced by what he heard on the West Texas rodeo circuit, where Merle Haggard and Creedence Clearwater Revival coexisted on every soundman's mixtape.
But Bingham's greatest musical inspiration was getting his teeth knocked out by an unkind bovine seven years ago. Laid up, he wrote songs and figured out how to sing them. He's traded eight seconds of bucking for four minutes of rocking ever since.
The 28-year-old just wrapped a solo acoustic stint opening for the Flatlanders. But Bingham's best with the Dead Horses, his three-piece tornado of a band, which is headed in the direction of La Zona Rosa on Wednesday.
Like many who are artistically inclined, Bingham is the beneficiary of a messed-up childhood. His parents were always splitting up, always getting evicted, always on the move, he says. Worse, they gave him a suburban cowboy name that sounds like he opens for the likes of Wade Bowen and Roger Creager. Born in Hobbs, N.M., and raised in Texas, Bingham went to five high schools before dropping out.
"I have a sister who's two years older and the day she turned 18 she said, 'I'm outta here,' " he recalls. "I couldn't wait to get out myself." Bingham's mother passed away recently. Although his father occasionally pops up at shows, Bingham hasn't kept in contact for several years, he says.
"When I hit the trail with the rodeo it was like joining a gang," Bingham says. "It was the first real supportive family I had. Everybody looked out for each other."
At a rodeo in Del Rio, Bingham's early songs of drifting and dreaming were heard by actor Barry Tubb, a former bullrider who introduced the upstart to songwriter/visual artist Terry Allen. Bingham met Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock — the Flatlanders — in Marfa about four years ago at an anniversary party for Terry and Jo Harvey Allen. At a guitar pull that also included David Byrne and Guy Clark, Bingham held his own.
"Joe (Ely) had me open a show for him in New York and it just took off from there," says Bingham, whose videos have been directed by Axster. They met three years ago when she used his song "The Other Side" in her short film "Sweet Sting."
It was at an Ely show at the Cactus Café in 2006 that opener Bingham, who was on a sleeping tour of South Austin couches at the time, attracted the attention of Lost Highway Records' Kim Buie, who signed him to the home of Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett.
The kid caused a stir with 2007's "Mescalito," which contained such Americana radio hits as "Southside of Heaven" and "Bread & Water." Critics championed a modern dust bowl troubadour and busted out the Thesaurus for new ways to describe his raw, husky voice. Bingham's latest album, "Roadhouse Sun," which came out in June to equally positive reviews, is more of a rock record that tries to plug into what he and his Dead Horses are capable of doing onstage. Those two albums were produced by ex-Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford, whose 20-year-old son Elijah plays bass and keyboards for Bingham's band.
Bingham says it looks like T-Bone Burnett (Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) will produce the next album early next year. The pair hit it off when Bingham played a fictional version of himself in the Jeff Bridges film "Crazy Heart," which Burnett worked on as musical director. The film, in which Bingham sings the title track, is set for Dec. 16 release.
Does this former Texan now living in the hills above Hollywood have designs on becoming the next Kris Kristofferson, a raspy-throated singer-songwriter who moonlights at matinees? "Nah, man," he says, laughing. "I wanna get this music thing down before I even think about branching out."