Marc Ford exposed me to Ryan Bingham’s music. Ford produced Bingham’s debut release Mescalito. The follow-up effort, Roadhouse Sun, proved Bingham’s songwriting matured. Of course, winning an Academy Award for the theme song—“The Weary Kind”—in Crazy Heart solidified Bingham’s songwriting prowess.
T-Bone Burnett produced Junky Star. The album was recorded in three days. The acoustic based songs only strengthen Bingham’s growing legacy. The band—Bingham on guitar, vocals and harmonica, Marc Ford’s son Elijah plays bass, Corby Shaub handles guitar and Matthew Smith taps the drums. The Dead Horses congeal in a streamlined quiet sound on Junky Star that evokes an earthbound soul lost in the dust. These songs evoke the spirit of Woody Guthrie. A voice for the common man…
Bingham’s a real troubadour. To earn money he used to tour the rodeo circuit, which got his teeth knocked out, and the guitar became his ticket from town to town. Even though he’s won an Oscar, his past life’s tribulations provide keen insight to the human condition. Junky Star opens with the reflective “The Poet”. You can hear an old soul sing the lines: “The moon keeps on shinin’/The rich keep on dinin’/How I love the highway sun/The poet in the back writes down his songs in blood.” In “The Wandering” Bingham sings, “Dreams can’t be bought/As long as you don’t sell/What you’ve been fighting for”, where matters of the soul are at stake. “Strange Feelin’ In the Air” encapsulates a loneliness and alienation that many folks experience these days.
Bingham explained the fulcrum of the title track and album: “I’ve always been passionate about the situation of homeless people and kids having to survive on the streets, so some of these songs come from that, from looking at what people need to do to survive. So Junky Star doesn’t have anything to do with drugs or anything like that, it’s more about finding the beauty in what might at first appear to be rough around the edges. You can see that beauty in someone on the street, like some guy just raving and be like ‘I wonder what this guy has been through to get to that place?”
The composition “Depression”—a true diamond song--definitely speaks to every hardworking American. Bingham’s lyrics resonate: “If I held my breath in the morning/Would I wake up for a lifetime/Lose my job in this depression/Well I don’t care cause I got your love/In this depression.” “Hallelujah” emerges as a quiet tune that demonstrates the subtle power of The Dead Horses. Bingham spoke about the philosophy of recording these songs: “We didn’t need a horn section or a string section or anything like that. We wanted to keep it simple and track these songs live. We were able to record the album in three days because the band already knew the songs, so we just went in and did them the way we’d been playing them.”
“Yesterday’s Blues” emits sad beauty in the lines: “I shook the hand of a weeping sparrow/And heard the most beautiful tune/Laid myself down upon a field of flowers/And searched through my dreams to find you/And lost all of yesterday’s blues.”
“Direction of the Wind” crosses blues and a rockabilly beat with a Bob Dylan type narrative that serves as one of the more rocking songs on the album. This one will catch fire when they play it live with electricity. “Lay My Head On the Rail”, another road song, evokes ashes of yesterday in the lines: “But I ain’t ever lookin’ back cause there’s nothin’ left behind.”
On Junky Star’s closing song, “All Choked Up Again”, T-Bone Burnett lends his guitar expertise. This tune sounds like a cross between Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt. Junky Star ends with the lines: “Everything around me starts spinnin’ and I realize I’m buried alive.” We need writers like Ryan Bingham around to project a collective perspective on the condition of our own souls…