Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Concert review: Ryan Bingham is the antidote to New Country

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Editor’s note: This article was originally published December 31, 2013

There’s a video compilation making the rounds on social media entitled “Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013.” It’s a mash-up of New Country bros talkin bout trucks, girls in skin-tight jeans, moonlight and sunshine, drinkin beers and getting those girls in those trucks. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so spot-on.

Ryan Bingham is the antidote to all of that crap. He’s authentic and powerful. He’s a songwriter and a performer, not a product.

It may not be fair to call Bingham a country artist. He defies classification. Maybe we can settle on roots. As in music rooted in real life, not an extended beer commercial. Music rooted in tales of survival, sacrifice and, yes, sometimes just having a damn good time.

His opener Monday night at ACL Live, where he opened for Willie Nelson, was the barroom blower “Dollar a Day,” a track buried in the middle of his 2007 album “Mescalito.”

It’s a song about patriotism and the struggle of the middle class. But unlike any New Country song that might touch on those themes, there’s nothing corny, pandering or jingoistic about it.

Dressed in jeans, a denim shirt, black vest and boots, Bingham looks like one of the country outlaws for whom he was opening. And unlike modern country bands packed with dudes who look like they all get their tips frosted at the same salon, Bingham’s three bandmates did not look cultivated by a studio exec and molded by a personal trainer – an old white guy played a nasty fiddle and a young African-American guy with an afro held things down with a velvet hammer of a bass.

Bingham, who played quite a bit of harmonica during the set, brought Willie’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael for a few tunes, including a cover of Waylon Jenning’s “Rainy Day Woman.” That song, like every tune belted by Bingham, showcased the former rodeo cowboy’s beautiful and bucking rasp – a sound like a West Texas wind billowing from a smokestack. It’s fitting Bingham would open for a man with Willie’s singular voice. Nobody making music today has a voice like Bingham’s, one that has the worn and weary texture of an old fighter more than twice his age but the power of a man in his 20s. It’s an intoxicating mixture.

As Bingham offered a million-dollar beaming smile to some hooting and hollering ladies in the mezzanine, he asked the audience if they felt like stomping their feet a little bit before launching into “a song for the mamas,” the sweeping galloper “Tell my Mother I Miss Her So.”

The song was imbued with that howl-at-the-rafters spirit that colors much of Bingham’s work like the ass-kicking “Day is Done.” And you get the sense from Bingham that when he says he was “born a bad man’s son,” it’s not just posturing. Though rail thin, Bingham has a dark charm that makes you think he could just as easily win a bar fight as he could put his arm around the other guy and talk him out of throwing hands.

Bingham closed the 70-minute set with the slithering “Sunshine,” a floor-stomping head rocker that sounds like something Ben Harper wishes he could write.

And, nope, he never played his massive hit “Weary Kind.” He doesn’t have to. And the audience doesn’t need him to. It’s a testament to the artist’s tenacity and sense of self that helped him survive his Oscar-studded 15 Minutes of Fame.

He may have been born in New Mexico, but opening for a Texas legend last night, Bingham was pure Texas badass.

And not one mention of skin-tight jeans. Nashville, take note.