Artists in the music world have long sought the attention and income that are byproducts of being featured in a film. At a time when CD sales are few, song placement in film, TV and video games has become virtually equivalent to a record deal. It’s a chance to be heard on an international level and to be paid in the process. In the history of big breaks on the big screen for musicians, though, few have benefited more than alt-country crooner Ryan Bingham.
Bingham was born in Hobbs, N. M., but he moved with his family to Texas at an early age. He began bull riding in his teens and spent several years on the rodeo circuit. It was there that he began writing his own songs during the extensive traveling from rodeo to rodeo. With a natural gift for storytelling and a weathered, gritty voice reminiscent of Steve Earle and Tom Waits, he gave listeners the impression he was decades older than his actual age. Bingham plunged head-first into music and released two independent albums. After signing with the highly regarded Lost Highway Records, he became a critical darling almost out of the gate, receiving raves and touring extensively at small venues throughout the country.
As fate would have it,though, his world was turned upside by “The Dude” himself, Jeff Bridges, or at least Bridge’s Oscar-winning performance in the film Crazy Heart. When the film’s director, Scott Cooper, a Bingham fan, sent him the script and asked if he could submit a song, Bingham went about writing “The Weary Kind” in “what felt like five minutes,” he said. The simple but powerful song was eventually selected as the movie’s theme and performed by not one, but two major characters in the film. In addition, Bingham was offered a small role in the film as a member of Jeff Bridges’ backing band.
The film initially was scheduled to go straight to DVD, but when a strong buzz about Bridges’ performance and the film’s stellar supporting cast brought about a theatrical release, the film and Bingham’s song were showered with awards. To the singer-songwriter’s complete surprise, he won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The attention saw the singer featured in nearly every national newspaper and magazine imaginable, appearing on late-night TV and causing his fan base to explode. After years playing venues with capacities more like Zoey’s, almost overnight, he’s found himself upgraded to concert theaters, like his upcoming appearance at the Ventura Theater. If that’s not enough, later this month Bingham is a favorite to win his first Grammy for Best Original Song in a Movie.
Through it all, Bingham, who turns 30 next month, has stayed humble and gracious in the face of his insta-semi-celebrity. Recently married and now living in the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles, it’s still undeniably a long and strange journey from his humble beginnings hanging on for dear life on the back of a bull.
“It’s very surreal. It happened so fast. You don’t have time to think about it when it’s going on but till about a month or two later, you think back and it’s like, ‘what the fuck just happened?’ ” laughs Bingham. “For the most part, I lay pretty low, not one to be out on the scene so I don’t notice it much when I’m off. It’s always when we’re out on the road and we play somewhere like Fargo or Omaha and it’s a sold-out crowd, somewhere we’ve never been before.
That’s when I realize things have changed.”
Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses perform at the Ventura Theater, Friday, Feb. 4.