Ryan Bingham: Mescalito

By James Calemine

Recorded at Compound Studios in California, Ryan Bingham’s Mescalito proves this young man is a musical force. Ex-Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford produced this record. Ford also plays electric, slide, acoustic, lap steel, bass guitars as well as a little B3 organ. Ford covered Bingham’s song “The Other Side” on his Weary And Wired CD.

Mescalito encompasses rock, country, blues and bluegrass into one high-octane mix. Bingham’s 25-year old voice and songs evoke the ghost of Townes Van Zandt. Marc Ford introduced me to Bingham’s music. This spring Ford told me about how he discovered Bingham.

“He’s a guy from West Texas. He’s an amazing guy, sort of Townes Van Zandt-Steve Earle kinda guy…he’s pure. I walked into the King King one night–it’s like 12:30–there are seven people in there–no one’s paying attention. Here’s this skinny kid with a big hat and a guy behind him playing kick-snare and a high-hat, and just floored me. I was looking around wondering if anybody is seeing this–thinking, God, I hope nobody in L.A. has got hooks in him and going to ruin this. So, I introduced myself and offered him some studio time.

“He came out with this record where this guy tried to Nashville him out–smooth out his sound–they took the story out of his voice. Ryan hated it. They came to California on a flip of a coin. Home or California. So, they’re driving around with a little PA system and a couple of guitars and just playing anywhere trying to make a buck and peddlin’ these records. I go, ‘You know, what I listened to doesn’t represent you at all. It’s like another person. He’s like, ‘I know, I hate it.’

“So, I call up my buddy Anthony at Compound, where I’ve been working and I go, ‘Look man, you gotta do me this favor for me. I said give me a day in the studio–you won’t regret it. I told him we were going to record for a day. By the time it was done, they were like, ‘Wow, we’ve never got to do a record and have it sound the way we sound!’ They were blown away. I said, ‘Well, let’s get those tracks and we’ll just fuck this record up. I stripped off everything…some of the tracks we just rebuilt entire tracks behind his vocals…“

The opening track–”Southside of Heaven”–plays out like some hallucinated drive through the Joshua Tree desert…with an opening riff that reminds me of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues”, and then Bingham begins to sings: “When I die Lord/Won’t you put my soul upon a train/Send it south bound/And give it a cool blues man name/Cause I been lost on them back roads so many times I’ve gone blind/Losin’ faith in my family has been drivin’ me out of my mind.”

One cannot overlook the contributions of Marc Ford on this record. Ford’s mastery of any instrument with strings provides a backbone to Mescalito’s sound. “The Other Side” illustrates Bingham’s ability to construct songs as Ford’s blues-soaked slide haunts in the background. “Bread And Water” makes banjos and slide guitars sound like some sacred sinner’s salvation at a foot-stomping bluegrass-rock and roll bar the north side of heaven.

Also in “Bread And Water”, Bingham’s cowboy poetry makes one reach for the tequila bottle: “I’ve lived without bread I’ve lived without water/Stuck outside the middle of the desert wishin’ I was home/A long way from nowhere, wishin’ I was somewhere/From the Sangre de Cristo to the Devil’s Backbone.” And later, “I’ve been to California and North Carolina/Hung with the hippies in Austin and the cowboys in Mexico.”

“Borracho Station” plays out some nylon string-guitar serenade down in Mexico during a last waltz straight out of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Mescalito’s centerpiece song, “Sunshine”, is the best song I’ve heard in a long time. A slow beat, with Ford’s eerie slide ambiance and Bingham’s haunted soul lyrics alters molecules in the listener…a sultry, redemptive, last call, wave goodbye…

“Ghost of Travelin Jones”, a Bingham composition, sounds like some old traditional song handed down through generations, which makes him a complete original; once again, Marc Ford’s guitar and Stephane Beaussart banjo intertwine a silver threaded maze within the song. “Hard Times” serves as another visionary tune where Bingham evokes a sentiment Woody Guthrie used to sing about.

“Dollar A Day” could ride as a soundtrack for some poor farmers who aren’t treated right by the folks they feed. Bingham’s “Take it Easy Mama” riff ranks as good as anything played by any band out there right now. There’s nothing that sounds like Mescalito. “Long Way From Georgia” reiterates Bingham’s originality. His vivid images and emotional musical hooks conjures some divine sadness.

You can almost feel the cool desert evening breeze when the lap steel and acoustic guitars accompany Bingham singing: “If I ever get home I’m never gonna worry/About the things that I could have done/Cause I’ve done a lot of things I could of done better/But now it doesn’t matter none/I’ve raised my glass.” “Sunrise” tells a tale we all know, “See them girls shake their ass underneath the sunrise/Oh my my, taste the sugar on their lips/Underneath that moonlight.”

The final cut, “For What It’s Worth” (there’s a nice surprise about three minutes after this track fades), awakens like some morning-after song..lost in a dark valley…with a poetic landscape imposing a mood on one’s soul. Mescalito finds Ryan Bingham beyond the sunset…