When the director of “Crazy Heart” approached Ryan Bingham with the idea of writing a few songs for his movie’s main character, the singer-songwriter didn’t hesitate.
Bingham, who hails from West Texas, related instantly to the character of Bad Blake, a boozy, broken-down country singer with a long string of broken promises trailing behind him.
“My father was a major alcoholic — one of those old cowboy drunk outlaws,” explained Bingham, and so were his dad’s friends. “There’s a lot of guys that have been burning the candle at both ends for too long. You see them every day.”
Bingham didn’t expect Bad Blake’s signature song, “The Weary Kind,” to become a hit. But the song he wrote with legendary music producer T-Bone Burnett went on to earn a Grammy Award, a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar — catapulting it, and Bingham, into the spotlight.
Asked about his transformation from rodeo rider to Oscar winner, the cowboy-turned- troubadour responded with typical humility.
“To me, it was a once-in- a-lifetime experience, but I really didn’t get too wrapped up in it,” Bingham said in a rough, raspy voice far more grizzled than his 31 years would suggest. “At the end of the day, it’s back in the van and back on the road playing music.”
A passion for music
Born in Hobbs, N.M., and raised on his grandfather’s massive New Mexico ranch, Bingham spent much of his hardscrabble childhood on the move — traveling with his family first to Bakersfield, then across west Texas. Rodeo remained the only constant for the boy, who began riding steers at age 11 and bulls at 15.
He discovered a passion for music at age 17 in Laredo, Texas, where a neighbor taught him how to play the mariachi song “La Malaguena” on the guitar.
As Bingham and his friends drove to and from rodeos, “I’d sit in the backseat and make up songs,” he said.
Impromptu parking lot concerts gave way to bar gigs, and soon the fledgling singer-songwriter had a series of small towns where he could play.
“If I made 50 bucks in tips a night, that was as much as I made in a week digging holes,” Bingham said, adding that music “gave me an opportunity to work for myself.”
In 2004, after a rodeo career that included a stint in “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” at Disneyland Paris, Bingham decided to hang up his spurs.
Faced with the prospect of competing in a rodeo or performing that same night, “I had to make a choice right then and I decided to go with guitar,” recalled Bingham, whose uncle was also a bull rider. “With rodeo, that’s got to be something you eat, sleep and breathe … My heart wasn’t in it as much as when I was a kid.”
Bingham released his first album, “Mescalero,” in 2007, followed by “Roadhouse Sun” in 2008. He credits country musicians Terry Allen and Joe Ely with helping him and his band, The Dead Horses, gain their footing.
In the beginning, “You feel like there’s nobody out there who will listen to you or give you a helping hand,” said the singer, who eventually headed out west to Los Angeles. “Joe and Terry taught me to keep on trucking and believe in (myself).”
Bingham’s music reached the ears of “Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper, who invited him to team up with Burnett and the late musician Stephen Bruton.
“I really didn’t know how it was going to turn out,” Bingham said of the movie’s soundtrack.
Then one morning in February 2010, “My agent called and said ‘You’ve been nominated for an Oscar.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” he recalled. “Me and my wife, we just laughed hysterically for several hours because we couldn’t believe it.”
Bingham, who’s married to filmmaker Anna Axster, acknowledged that “The Weary Kind” has transformed his life.
“In my career, it’s definitely created a lot of opportunities,” he said. “It exposed my music to a lot of people who wouldn’t have heard about me.”
A new emphasis
Bingham’s new solo album, “Tomorrowland,” comes on the heels of two successful 2010 releases: the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack and “Junky Star,” which reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart. Both were produced by Burnett, his “Crazy Heart” collaborator.
“Tomorrowland,” released in September, is Bingham’s first album on his own label, Axster Bingham Records. According to the singer-songwriter, the songs on the genre-bending album — which range from acoustic protest anthems to raucous rockers — reflect a newfound fascination with the electric guitar.
“It was almost like my inner 16-year-old was coming out and having fun,” said Bingham, who purposely included tracks he’d want to play live.
After his experiences touring with “Junky Star,” an album he described as “really sad” and “really personal,” he’s eager to kick loose.
“It’s hard for me to get up and sing songs every night that I don’t feel really passionate about,” said Bingham, comparing songwriting to keeping a diary. “At the end of the day I hope to be an optimistic person, but not avoid the harsh realities of life and what I see out in the world.”
IF YOU GO
7:30 p.m. Tuesday
SLO Brewing Co., 1119 Garden St., San Luis Obispo
$25, $27 at the door
543-1843 or www.slobrewingco.com