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The singing cowboy

The Baltimore Sun

Ryan Bingham has been hard to track down for nearly a week.

Because he was one of the acts on Cayamo -- a six-day Caribbean cruise featuring fellow country and roots-rock artists such as Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and Lyle Lovett -- the Texan singer-songwriter has been unavailable to discuss Mescalito, his national debut on Lost Highway Records.

He had no cell-phone signal. And besides, when the ship docked, he and the band wanted to explore the sunny environs. The last thing on his mind was finding a phone to do an interview.

"I'm sorry, man, it ain't been easy to get me," Bingham says with a throaty chuckle. The artist's voice, which belies his 25 years, is sandy and frayed around the edges, much like what you hear on the album. "I'm back out here on the road again. It's been exciting so far."

Bingham plays DC9 tonight in Washington as part of a national tour behind Mescalito. A rustic collection of wearisome, rock-inflected Americana tunes, the CD was released late last year. The artist's arid music and dusty vocals, evocative of the deserts he grew up around outside of Mexico, imbue his rugged tales exploring hard times and loneliness.

"The record just shows how I grew up," says Bingham, calling from a stop in Tampa, Fla. "It's a way of venting, getting things out."

It's not the kind of country music heard in the mainstream these days. Though musically and lyrically predictable in spots, Mescalito is refreshingly frank with a lived-in feel. There's nothing glossed-over about its sound.

"I hope my music doesn't fit into anything like what you hear in country now," Bingham says. "I'm just trying to get in where I fit in."

The cowboy lifestyle he extols on the new album runs in the blood. He comes from a line of ranchers, beginning with his great-grandfather. Before pursuing music, Bingham was on track to be a rodeo star.

"Riding bulls was dangerous, something you got to do 110 percent," he says. "But I've always loved music. That won out with me."

For a time, he tried balancing the two activities -- singing and playing guitar at tailgate parties before rodeos. Eventually, he landed local club gigs around Fort Worth, about 80 miles away from Stephenville, Texas, where Bingham was attending a rodeo school. But as more gigs came, Bingham left the rodeo life altogether and moved to Los Angeles in hopes of landing a contract. He soon met Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford, who suggested the two go into a studio and record Bingham's songs.

The ex-bull rider self-released two albums, Lost Bound Rails and Wishbone Saloon, before scoring a contract with Lost Highway, an artist-friendly, Universal-distributed label whose roster includes Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne.

"Before, I was traveling around in an old Suburban, trying to sell CDs in the back of my car," Bingham says. "Lost Highway helped me out a lot. It's a great label that pretty much let me be me."

Clearly inspired by his former rodeo life, Mescalito bristles with stomping honky-tonk numbers and campfire ballads. Whether he's singing about ghosts or marijuana, Bingham gives the songs a certain authenticity with his weathered tone. The album, he says, echoes his influences.

"A lot of the older country stuff I listen to," Bingham says. "But, man, I listen to everything from Bob Wills to Bob Marley. Music is a big melting pot for me. Music that has more roots appeals to me."

Next month, the artist goes back into the studio to work on a follow-up to Mescalito. He says his recent move to Topanga, Calif., has inspired a breezier direction.

"I've been out in the desert for so long, it's time to be around some water for a change," he says. "I think I've grown a little. Maybe the album will show that; maybe it won't. I don't know. We'll have to see."

See Ryan Bingham at DC9, 1940 Ninth Street N.W. in Washington, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10 and are available at or by calling 202-483-5000.

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