April 30--The last time Ryan Bingham played Wilmington, way back in October of 2009, the country rocker was not yet an Oscar winner.
Less than six months after first playing the Port City, however, Bingham was walking across one of the world's biggest stages with a golden statuette in his hand, having won Best Original Song for "The Weary Kind." Bingham wrote the tune with famed producer T Bone Burnett for the movie "Crazy Heart," which stars Jeff Bridges as a washed-up country singer. (Bingham has a small role as one of Bridges' bandmates.)
Not bad for a singer and songwriter who only a decade earlier had been playing some of the roughest dives West Texas has to offer.
Bingham will return to Wilmington on Wednesday for a show at the Brooklyn Arts Center. This time around, instead of a promising but obscure artist known mostly to music insiders, Bingham is fully established and increasingly taking control of his own career. After a trio of increasingly successful records on the Lost Highway label -- 2010's "Junky Star" debuted in the top 20 of the Billboard's 200 -- Bingham has struck out on his own with "Tomorrowland," an album on his own Axster Bingham imprint that's as much arena rock as it is country rock. It was released in September.
"I just wanted it to be a lot of fun to play live," Bingham said of "Tomorrowland" during a phone interview. "I just kind of felt like my inner 16-year-old was coming out."
Indeed, the album's first single -- the profane rocker "Guess Who's Knocking?" -- sounds more like the bluesy Black Keys than the more country-inflected stuff Bingham has been largely known for up to now. Still, he's always been able to peel back the varnish when he wants to, as on the political rocker "Endless Ways" from 2009's "Roadhouse Sun."
One thing the songs on "Tomorrowland" show is that Bingham hasn't let greater name recognition dampen his enthusiasm for socially aware, lyrically direct songs that champion the underdog. "I Heard 'Em Say" is an indictment of small-town bigotry, while "Rising of the Ghetto" is nothing less than an arena rock call to arms championing the underclass.
"It's just the way I grew up," Bingham said of what inspires his songs. "I grew up on the dark side of town, living all over the place. Every day was a grind and a battle. Every time you'd get up you'd get kicked back down."
Indeed, it's hard to read an article about Bingham without finding the world "hardscrabble" stuck in somewhere to describe his upbringing. Still, that drifter-like existence, which, legend has it, saw Bingham living on his own before he was 18 and even spending some time in the rodeo, seems to have lent an authenticity to Bingham's tunes, which he sings in a raspy growl that sounds old beyond his 32 years.
An affection for Bob Dylan helped steer the young songwriter. Dylan's phrasing sometimes creeps into Bingham's delivery, but "his lyrics (were an influence) more than anything," Bingham said. "I was right at that age, 15, 16, confused about the world, nothing made sense. It really kind of hit home with me, made some things make sense. 'Maybe I'm not the only one who feels this way.'"
Bingham's never met his musical idol, but chances are he will this summer when he joins Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket for select dates of the Americanarama Festival of Music tour.
Call it another step up for a talented young artist whose star has yet to stop rising.
John Staton: 343-2343
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