I don’t even like Patsy Cline. Can’t stand Hank, and I don’t dig George. I consider Townes Van Zandt folk, ditto the lovely Blaze Foley. I like the space cowboy of Gram Parsons, Ryan Bingham is unashamedly country in every way. I like Ryan. Ryan has an edge of scuzz, a patina of tobacco chewing ranch-hand, rather than Grand Old Opry and a Nudie Suit. The only guy who could ever wear a Nudie Suit and look fabulous was Gram in his poppies. Gram was cool.
So Junky Star…The eponymous track is a lush ballad, Ryan putting himself in the shoes of a guy who came from his farm, out to California, after he shot the man dead who tried to steal his farm off him with a handshake and a pen, and ends up on the Santa Monica Pier “with the junkies and the stars.” This is pinpoint, hard lived, borne out of experience song writing. Ryan feels real. He isn’t cowboy posturing. Nowadays cowboys don’t outrun the Sheriff, this is outlaw country for the new age. Now the boys are outrunning addiction, they are losing their small farms, bought out by the corporations and mega-ranches, they are running to the west coast. Ryan didn’t really break through until he his song The Weary Kind was made into a movie, the entire plot built around a soft folky song that comes on like Townes Van Zandt at his most depressed. Something about Ryan’s careworn brutal look right at the truck stops and the drunks in the neon frittering away of lives in small towns elevates it above the tail gate detritus of modern country.
Junky Star is a bit patchy in my opinion, Depression stands out, with Ryan staking his ground while the American economy fails around him, his friends ‘strung out on heroin’, and ‘gone out to California.’ “If I held your hand in this town, they would lock me up for possession,” sings Ryan…and I know exactly where he is talking about. Run, Ryan, run! This is a young fun album, Direction of the Wind name dropping Bob Dylan in a way that is slightly uncool, but makes you smile. Hard Worn Trail takes you to the old west, in a thunderous few minutes of old school outlaw country, he reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard, and that is a good thing.
By Crazy Heart Ryan has got a bit more commercial, and has grown up a lot. It is a good album, it is not as challenging and the content more even. I am not ashamed to like it, and considering how I feel about the genre…that is a compliment. The movie is bearable, even if Ryan’s cameo is a little stiff, but then I like Jeff Bridges.