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From Rodeo To Radio: Ryan Bingham's Wild Ride

By Daniel Hajek | NPR
Sunday, December 29, 2013

Ryan Bingham pulls out a rope, lights up a cigarette and lassos a metal bull in his backyard. His house is nestled in a canyon that overlooks the Santa Monica Mountain Range. Out here you'd never know you were just up the road from Los Angeles. Bingham says he feels right at home.

"Takes you back to the source of it every now and then," he says.

Bingham is from the desert town of Hobbs, N.M., along the border of west Texas. He grew up riding bulls, and says roping brings back memories of the rodeo.

"You're in the middle of their back, and they're spinning and jumping, and it's just blowing and going, and the dust is flying and crowd is yelling," he says. "It's like driving down the highway, 90 miles an hour, and throwing the steering wheel out of the window."

He and his friends would pile in a truck and travel all over Texas from one rodeo to another. Every chance he got, he'd pack up and head out into the middle of nowhere.

"My parents were severe alcoholics. When I was about 17 years old, I finally left home," he says. "It wasn't a choice that I made; it was basically like my parents were gone."

His rodeo buddies became family. During those long road trips, Bingham kept a guitar in the backseat of his truck, taking it with him whenever they'd stop in at roadhouses and rundown bars.

"A lot of these little bars we went to were not necessarily places where people went to listen to music," he says. "They were places where people went to get drunk and fight."

But Bingham started making a name for himself, and eventually wrangled up his own band.

"I remember we went to this bar inside of a motel. This was like a really, really rundown motel, and they had mice races. And on the marquee, I remember it said, 'Ryan Bingham and Mice Races Wednesday night.' And it was the strangest thing I think I've ever seen in my life," he says.

He eventually saved up enough money to get to Los Angeles, where he played a little bar near Hollywood. That's where he caught the attention of a film agent.

"I had a couple of homemade demo CDs with some songs on it, and he just started handing them out to people that he knew," Bingham says.

One of the recipients was actor and director Scott Cooper.

"I listened to that music and I said to myself, 'My God, this guy has an incredible voice,'" Cooper recalls. "I said, 'Sounds like Ryan might be the perfect guy.'"

The perfect guy to make a song for Cooper's new film, Crazy Heart, about an aging songwriter named Bad Blake, played by Jeff Bridges. Cooper asked Bingham if he'd be interested in writing a theme.

"I think at that time, Ryan maybe was living in his truck," Cooper says. "I give him the script and he goes off and the next day, he calls me and he says, 'I think I have something that might interest you.'"

Cooper invited him over to meet T-Bone Burnett, the Grammy Award-winning record producer. He told him to bring his guitar.

"He said, 'Come on. Show us what you got,'" Bingham says.

He picked up his guitar and began to strum his song.

"It immediately finds a place in your soul. And that was just with Ryan strumming the intro," Cooper says. "Once he started singing, his voice is so rich and whiskey-soaked, that you can't even believe it's coming out of this young guy. T-Bone was shaking his head and was just like, 'That's incredible.'"

The song, titled "The Weary Kind," became the theme from Crazy Heart. That year, it won Best Original Song at the 2009 Academy Awards.

Suddenly, Bingham was traveling across the country on press tours and interviews, selling out venues and playing on late-night TV shows. But while he was in the spotlight, he was dealing with a tragedy in his own life.

"At the start of it, my father had committed suicide," Bingham says. "And so even though everything was such a wonderful time and I felt really honored about it, there was still something very big in my life that was going on that was very hard not to think about. It was probably one of the best and worst times of my whole life."

His Oscar isn't in a glass case or anywhere on display. It just stands on the floor in the corner of his bedroom. Bingham walks over and picks it up.

"It's still as heavy as it was when I first held it. Brings back a lot of feelings, that's for sure," he says. "It's still kind of hard for me to wrap my head around a lot of that."

Since his Oscar, he's released two albums and will start recording a new one next month. On Monday, he'll join Willie Nelson on stage at Austin City Limits Live.

His days of riding bulls and living in his truck may be in the past, but the 32-year-old songwriter still has a lot to sing about.

"You just can't muscle your way through some things in life," Bingham says. "You just have to keep your head on your shoulders and dance with it as you go."

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