Ryan Bingham has that humble-but-steely cowboy thing down cold.
He comes by it honestly. The 29-year-old singer-songwriter was born on a ranch in Hobbs, N.M. His uncles rodeoed, and even though his family went into oil field work after his grandfather sold the spread, Ryan hit the circuit as a kid and, later, as a professional bull rider.
Bingham lives in Topanga Canyon now, owns an Oscar and is up for a Grammy Award (both for "The Weary Kind," the song he composed and sang for the movie "Crazy Heart"). But he still sounds as authentic as Permian Basin dust.
"Obviously, I'm proud of the work and I'm honored to win an award like that," Bingham says in a friendly Southwest twang that doesn't sound near as ragged as the voice he sings with. "But I'm not into `the scene' around here very much. When we're on the road, we play in bars and clubs every night. So when I'm at home, I just like to hang out here in Topanga, or go camping ... . Kind of avoiding the human race," he adds with a laugh.
That said, Bingham and his band the Dead Horses will make the L.A. scene at the El Rey on Saturday. The show will highlight songs from his third Lost Highway album, "Junky Star," which came out late last summer. Though some of those tunes notably reference life in Southern California and vaguely surreal showbiz encounters, Bingham says most of them were written before all the "Crazy Heart" attention began.
"We're starting to play bigger venues and to sold-out crowds," he reports. "I'm like, wow, where is all this coming from? It's inspiring and it makes you feel like you're doing something worthwhile.
"But the reason why I started writing songs and playing music was because it was a therapeutic, real kind of personal thing to me," Bingham continues. "It's not necessarily about the money and being famous. And I'm not willing to sacrifice anything to make a quick buck for somebody else.
Before Hollywood took notice, Bingham was being called a welcome reincarnation of the spirit of 1970s outlaw country music, with a lyrical gift some have even likened to Bob Dylan's. "Junky Star" reinforces both perceptions, but especially the latter.
"I guess if you listen to that music long enough, it's going to rub off on you in one way or another," Bingham reckons. "So it wouldn't hurt my feelings if I learned a thing or two from Dylan.
"We're not necessarily a country band," he adds about the Horses, which is made up of the same guys he used to play with in rodeo parking lots. "We get kind of loud and play a little rock 'n' roll, too."
As for his acting career (Bingham had a small role in "Crazy Heart"), he's keeping that personal, too. He's read for a few parts, but he mainly aspires to appear in a feature his wife, Anna Axster, hopes to direct this year.
She's helmed most of the band's videos, but Bingham admits that, in this case, "I think I might have to audition for her first."
In the meantime, the confirmed outdoorsman is digging all that California has to offer. And that includes surfing.
It's even kind of a cowboy thing to do, he says.
"It's really one of the only things I've found that can be compared to bull riding," Bingham insists. "You're dealing with the force of Mother Nature. It's something you can't really control and it's not really something you're trying to tame or overcome.
"It's just something you're trying to be a part of," he adds. "And the waves can get pretty big and intense, so that whole fear factor and adrenaline rush is similar as well."
There are also similarities to learning how to sing. In Bingham's case, anyway.
"When I first started out, for several years we would play in these pretty rough bars," he notes, explaining where that ravaged voice came from. "They were smoky, lots of booze and real loud. Most of the places we played were the kind that people didn't necessarily go to to hear music; they went there to drink. The sound systems were usually real crappy and you're playing two or three hours straight.
"So I was kind of learning as I was going, and I still am," he humbly admits. "I didn't really know how to sing, to use your voice and sing from your stomach. I think I just blew it out."