If you dialed up central casting and asked for someone who could pass for a rodeo cowboy, they'd send over someone who looks just like Ryan Bingham -- young and charismatic, in a weather-beaten sort of way, with a voice that make his exploits sound true-to-life. Funny thing, though, a rodeo cowboy is exactly what Bingham used to be.
Before emerging as one of the most acclaimed young singer/songwriters in the Americana orbit, Bingham grew up on a ranch in New Mexico and rode steers. So what's it like to go for a ride on an angry beast that's of a mind to tap dance on your head? For that, Bingham defers to one of his elders in the singer-songwriter universe.
"I think Robert Earl Keen explained that the best," Bingham drawls, calling from the road on his way to a show in Pittsburgh. "It's like driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour, and you throw the steering wheel out the window. But I started riding steers when I was 11 years old. My uncle rode professionally, and my family got me into it on the ranch. I think that's how everyone does. I didn't wake up one day and say, 'I'm gonna get on a bull today.' It just seemed normal at the time.
"But," he adds with a laugh, "playing guitar is a lot easier on the teeth and bones, that's for sure. Got my teeth knocked out riding bulls. But it's part of the job."
Playing guitar and singing will probably get Bingham a lot farther than bull-riding ever would have. His second major-label album, "Roadhouse Sun" (Lost Highway Records), is another superb selection of earthy country-rock as spare and evocative as the West Texas landscape. Produced by Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford, the album sets Bingham's wizened seen-it-all deadpan to kicking bar-band arrangements, courtesy of his band the Dead horses.
It sounds like a night in a bar -- or maybe like walking outside into broad daylight after spending 12 hours in one -- with rocked-up songs about lonesome highways and the things people hit to avoid 'em. All Bingham is doing is keeping his eyes open, he says.
"I always just kinda keep writing all the time," Bingham says. "I don't ever sit down with a pen and paper and go, 'I need four or five songs, guess I better write some.' I've got a guitar in the van for when we're going down the road. And I get bits and pieces from stuff I experience every day, just kind of take it from there. It's things from life and people I meet, things I've been through. Like a journal. Every now and then I write stuff down. But mostly I don't have to because the records take care of that."
Bingham earned his road-wise bona fides honestly, traveling the rodeo circuit around Texas well into his 20s. Along the way, he started playing guitar and would ride in the back of the truck on the way to the next rodeo, playing and making up songs.
As a singer-songwriter, Bingham has earned the respect of peers and elders. Joe Ely took Bingham under his wing and served as a mentor. That's especially fitting because, like Ely, Bingham falls into the too-rock-for-country-and-too-country-for-rock zone that translates into a radio no-man's land.
"I have no expectations of that in the future," Bingham says. "It will not hurt my feelings not to get thrown into that mix, because I just can't imagine."