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A Wild Ride — No Bull

Ryan BinghamRyan Bingham’s smoke and whiskey etched voice is quite deceiving. You might think you’re listening to some dusty, middle-aged, leather-faced guitar slinger instead of a brooding, good-looking 29-year-old former bull rider. If his rusty-saw of a voice sounds familiar, then you probably saw the film Crazy Heart. Bingham penned the film’s theme song, “The Weary Kind,” for which he received both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Original Song this year. That’s a wild ride for a guy who didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 17 years old.

Bingham’s work on the Crazy Heart soundtrack brought him together with producer T-Bone Burnett, who produced Bingham’s latest album, Junky Star, a vehicle for his ever-improving songwriting skills and his raw out-in-front vocals. It also has all the markings of a Burnett project, giving it a stripped-down, timeless sound. The unobtrusive acoustic accompaniment of Bingham’s longtime band, The Dead Horses, never overdrives the vocals.

The 12 tracks of Junky Star are populated with characters from the harder side of life — junkies, murderers, strippers and thieves — clinging to a slender glimmer of hope. Bingham’s vocal style ranges from the Dylanesque “Direction of the Wind” to a Nebraska-era Springsteen on “Yesterday’s Blues,” with others bringing Steve Earl or Tom Waits to mind. In the standout track “Hallelujah,” a man robbed and shot to death tells one of the most compellingly tragic tales. He unwillingly wanders between life and the afterlife, refusing to abandon his passion for life and the lover he left behind.

This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, September 16, 2010

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Tyler Fortier – The Next Big Thing?

The Next Big ThingI became aware of Tyler Fortier a few months ago while doing an article on an act for which he opened. Honestly, after going to the show, I liked Tyler’s music much more than the headliner. That’s just me.
I interviewed him and I’ve been enjoying his music. I’ve had an in depth article about him on the back burner for a couple of months now (that I promise will be my next entry).

In the meantime, Tyler is in the running for the “Next Big Thing” that is sponsored by Eugene Weekly. His entry is the very timely and driving  “Fear of the Unknown”. “Fear Of The Unknown” is a not-quite, almost finished version of a song that will be found on one of Tyler’s future releases. For a not-quite, almost finished version it sounds damn good. Go listen to it (you can click on the song name or on Tyler’s picture to go listen to it and vote). If you like it even half as much as I did, vote for it!

Tyler Fortier, at the age of 25, has released 4 CD’s and proves to be a consistent presence in the NW as a prolific singer/songwriter. With the release of his new record, This Love Is Fleeting on April 15th of this year, Fortier embarked on a 2 month long/40 city tour throughout the NW (OR, WA, ID) and has been playing shows and festivals in the Eugene area throughout the summer before he heads back out on the road in September. Since Fortier’s return home, he’s recorded 15 new songs and declares, “ he has many more to go,” already planning the releases of his 5th and 6th records.

Much more on Tyler Fortier coming to OKOM very soon!

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Robert Earl Keen Interview – Part 2 of 3

Robert Earl KeenOn August 18, 2010 I was given the opportunity to interview the legendary singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen. In Part One of this three part interview we talked about a variety of subjects – a burning car, Todd Snider, and Robert’s not-so-traditional love songs. In this portion of the interview we explore some of his more bizarre recordings and one of his somewhat unorthodox songwriting methods. Enjoy!

OKOM: Now, going back to your What I Really Mean album – There are two songs on there that I love, that’s “The Great Hank” and “Mr. Wolf and Mamabear.” Both of those make me want to ask a two-part question – Where did those stories come from, what were you smoking at the time, and where can I get some?

REK: [Laughs] Well, “Mr. Wolf and Mama Bear” has to do with a personal small-town politic thing that I got involved in. Well, I didn’t get involved in it; I got sucked into it. I didn’t ever want to be a part of it.

OKOM: Wow, really?

REK: Yeah, and it [the song] was my vindication.

OKOM: [Laughs] That’s great.

REK: That’s how I vindicated the entire scenario, to be able to write something in kind of a puzzle form. What do they call it? It’s kind of an allegory without any religious overtones.

OKOM: I’m assuming that you can’t say where that took place.

What I Really MeanREK: Yeah, it was where I was living there in Bandera, Texas. It was all pretty well documented. It was in all the papers and all kinds of stuff. My thing was – because I tried to really hold the noble and gentlemanly line on the whole situation – I never felt like I got my true emotional indoctrination out there. I never really let them have it like I wanted to, so I did it in a song.

OKOM: So, that was your payback.

REK: Yeah, that was my payback. [Laughs] Oddly enough, I have a few songs like that, and every time you sing those kinds of songs, you kind of get your own inner-grin going about that kind of thing.

OKOM: Yeah, I can imagine.

REK: And “The Great Hank” was kind of a combination of some long thoughts on Hank Williams and his career, the strangeness of it, and the shortness of it. And I was in a play in Philadelphia about fifteen years ago that had some elements of Hank Williams. I was truly trying to do one those things that was really interesting and really sideways. I got naked and laid down on the floor in the shack that I write in –

OKOM: [Laughs] You’re kidding, right?

REK: No, I’d lay on the hardwood floor and I’d play the guitar until that kind of popped out. Once it popped out, it was all there in front of me like a hologram. I thought, “Wow, this is it!” So I just stayed with it. I even thought of changing the end but it came out so smooth and beautiful that I didn’t even want to mess with it. I could have tweaked the end a little bit because it does kind of fade off into the dust.

OKOM: Yeah, it does.

REK: I could have come with a little bit more of an impact or something like that, like I like to do, but it just fell out so great – I left it alone.

OKOM: The first time that I listened to it, I had to back it up and listen again where you have that line about him being in drag.

REK: Yeah.

OKOM: Plus, the visuals of him sitting there under the glow of the TV with mascara running down his cheek – it’s just priceless.

REK: Yeah [Laughs]

OKOM: [Laughs] It’s just great, man.

REK: Well, thanks. Yeah, I love that one. That’s fun, but it’s hard to do on stage though, because there’s a bunch of words, a lot of words. It’s almost a tongue twister. If I get started and I stumble – I’ll stumble big time.

OKOM: So, that’s one of your personal favorites?

REK: Yeah, I like to do it. It’s fun to do. It’s more of a performance piece than it is a song.

Gravitational ForcesOKOM: Another one of yours – that just popped into my head – that’s along those lines is “Gravitational Forces.” Were you actually in a club like that?

REK: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. That was all, like I said, more journalistic. I was pretty much talking and telling what I thought. But what I wanted to do with that was the music gave it that spaceiness, gave it the total weird vibe that was really occurring at that place. That was a nightmare from start to finish. I could write another song about the gig itself.

OKOM: Wow, so that actually did happen.

REK: Yeah, oh yeah. It was this place called the E9 Club in El Paso, Texas – the worst place ever. I mean, I’ve played worse places, but that was one of the more bizarre bad places.

OKOM: Man, that’s great. I thought – as bizarre as it sounded – this place can’t really exist. If it did, that’s really something.

REK: Only in El Paso, basically.

OKOM: I guess anything goes there.

REK: Yeah.

Go read Part Three…

Go back to Part One…


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Robert Earl Keen Interview – Part 1 of 3

As I waited for Robert Earl Keen to call, I calmly went over my notes and made sure that the recorder was set up and ready to do its job – all was cool. The phone rang, I hit the record button, and hit the talk button on the phone – I had nothing but a dial tone. What the hell? The phone rang again, I hit the record button again, and hit the talk button on the phone – again – nothing but a dial tone. Then I remembered – hit the talk button first, then hit the record button. Damn, I hoped that Robert wasn’t too pissed. I was no longer calm. I waited for what seemed like an eternity (it was only about thirty seconds) for the phone to ring again – and it did. My anxiety faded after the first few minutes talking with Robert. It was a lot of fun. Here’s part one of that interview.

Robert Earl KeenREK: Hi, I’m calling for Blake. This is Robert Keen.

OKOM: Robert, how are you doing?

REK: Fantastic.

OKOM: Sorry about the phone problem. I, uhh, dropped it… twice.

REK: No problem. [Laughs] Don’t worry about it!

OKOM: First off, I want to thank you for taking the time out for this interview. I really appreciate it.

REK: Sure!

OKOM: I wanted to ask you about a few things. I’d like to talk about Rose Hotel, and I’d like to go back a few albums as well.

REK: Okay.

OKOM: You know, you and I are the same age, and I also had a car go up in flames back in 1974.

REK: Wow. Now that’s worth going over, huh?

OKOM: Yeah, but I’m SURE that your story is much better than mine. Do you mind telling me about that car of yours in flames on the cover of your Picnic album?

REK: Yeah, It was at Willie Nelson’s [1974] picnic that I went to. I had a date, which was really rare for me.

OKOM: Really? [Laughs]

REK: Yeah, so, I had a date, and I took her to the picnic. You know, I guess it was sort of on the final days of free love, braless girls, and all that great stuff. We just kind hung out at the picnic. The day was a little bit hazy; I’d say a lot of it was fuzzy.

OKOM: Well, it was the seventies.

REK: Yeah, some self-induced and maybe some of it was the weather. But the car caught on fire out in the parking lot and I didn’t have anything to do with it. But you could see the big huge plumes of smoke behind the stage. They came out and they explained how they had this fire out in the parking lot. They called out my license plate number, and I just happened to know it. I remember just running and running through all the people hollering that my car was on fire. People were laughing and pointing. I finally got out there and it was really, truly just burnt to nothing.

Robert Earl Keen's PicnicOKOM: Yeah, in the picture it’s totally engulfed in flames.

REK: Yeah. I just literally sat down on the burnt grass there and started weeping. My girlfriend, my date – she thought that it was the funniest thing she ever saw. So, that was the kind of the end of that relationship, I think.

OKOM: Oh, man! [Laughs]

REK: No, man, it was. We had to hitchhike back. It was some kind of deal.

OKOM: That’s a great story. Hey, I’ve been listening to you for a long time –

REK: Uh-huh, good.

OKOM: – and your songs, your lyrics tell such vivid stories full of out-of-the-ordinary characters. Do these stories sometimes stem from personal experiences and people you’ve met or known?

REK: Well, I think that every good piece of fiction stems from a true story. I always get a kick out of how movies always say it’s from a true story. Well, hell, it’s all from some kind of point of truth. It just depends on how much your imagination kicks in. So, it really varies with me. It can come from something small – me seeing some kind of scene or scenario in my imagination, and then taking it on from there literally. For instance, the song “Gringo Honeymoon” that we still play is almost a true journalistic telling of an exact story.

Gringo HoneymoonOKOM: Really?

REK: Yeah, so I try to go from being as imaginative as I can, to sometimes trying to write down exactly what happened because – to be cliché – truth is stranger than fiction in some instances.

OKOM: That’s true. You know, one time I was talking to Todd Snider about his song called “You Think You Know Somebody” from his first album. I was asking him what inspired him to write that because I thought maybe it was based on someone he knew. He told me he was trying to do what you did with “The Road Goes on Forever” – and that’s to tell a story with an ending that you don’t see coming.

REK: Really?

OKOM: Yeah, and I thought that was pretty cool. He told me that he really worked hard at it too. Was that your intention [with “The Road Goes on Forever”]?

REK: I always feel that I have an inner need to have some kind of wrap up. I don’t know, some sort of dramatic ending. I like drama – in movies, in books, in songs – in any kind of narrative. So, yes, that’s almost always my intention. Moreover, in the world of Todd Snider, Todd has taken it and gone beyond. I mean I’m completely amazed with what Todd does, how brilliant he is with not only his songs, but his storytelling, and his whole show. I think that he’s a talent that has separated him apart from all the others. I think that he’s almost created his own genre.

OKOM: Yeah, and in a way, you have too. But yours goes back so much further and there are guys like Todd that look up to you.

REK: And that’s quite a compliment to me, but he took it on and moved it to something else. It’s nice. I’m just glad that I know him.

OKOM: It has got to be a great feeling that you inspired guys like that.

REK: It is. Sometimes I’m surprised when Todd gives me credit for anything, but he’s just very magnanimous in that way.

OKOM: You’ve never really been mainstream country. You do things your own way. Was there ever a point in your career where you’ve thought, “Maybe I should be more mainstream?”

REK: Well, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess there were times when I’d think that I’d want to be mainstream, you know, written mainstream kind of songs. But it really never was meant to be. I haven’t spent a lot of time worrying about it. But I certainly have wondered what it takes to be mainstream, because I’m not really sure what that is. Just about the time that you think that you’ve figured things out – it changes. You know, I see people with songs these days that I wrote fifteen years ago, basically the same song, that’s now mainstream. I had people – in radio and stuff – back then tell me that’ll never happen; we’ll never play that kind of stuff on the radio.

OKOM: Now they’re playing something that’s damn near the same thing.

REK: Yeah, but you know, we all have our own destinies and I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with that whole idea. So, I just like to write what I write.

OKOM: Right, right, [Laughs] which a lot of us appreciate.

REK: Well, good! I’m glad that I do connect with people. That’s the main thing. If I didn’t connect then I wouldn’t be doing this.

OKOM: I think it comes back to your style of storytelling is what people connect with. They can visualize those settings.

REK: Uh-huh, good.

The Rose HotelOKOM: There’s also another group of your songs that I kind of categorized as non-traditional, sad love songs like “Broken End of Love” and “For Love.” The title track of Rose Hotel is another one of those types of love songs.

REK: Right, right.

OKOM: You know, the two characters never meet; they never come together.

REK: [Laughs] Yeah, right.

OKOM: Do you put a lot of yourself and your own experiences with relationships into those types of songs?

REK: I think the only way you can tap into some kind of an emotional well is to be putting yourself into that situation. I’m always feeling like that – even in the smallest of relationships – sometimes there’s that inner need to really, really have some kind of touchstone or some sort of a connection with that other person. And many, many times you just barely miss it. Those sleepless nights that you can’t figure things out, you try to work out – where did I miss that connection? Why did it dissolve? Why did it not quite come to its fruition?

OKOM: That’s interesting.

REK: Particularly because I don’t feel that it’s my strength as a writer, you know the emotional song or almost even the spiritual song. I think about those a lot more than I do on any kind of a narrative song.

OKOM: So, is it more work for you to do that?

REK: It is more work, yes it is. Because I think that you have to peel back the layers. I always wonder if I’m just emotionally bankrupt or can I just not peel back the layers and be more honest with myself.

OKOM: But your goal is to really hit that vein and hit the emotions.

REK: Yes, very much so, yes.

Go Read Part Two…

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Living on That Dusty Trail

Robert Earl KeenSince the mid 80s Robert Earl Keen’s songwriting styles have proven to be unequaled. His many loyal fans gladly venture into the vivid settings rendered in Keen’s songs – where his colorful and eclectic characters reside – to live the stories themselves. They know the gang that hangs out at Mr. Blues in “Feelin’ Good Again.” They’re in the alley with Sonny and Sherry in “The Road Goes on Forever” as that fateful shot rings out. They live to drink Mescal with the boys from the old Broken O at Amanda’s Saloon on “Sonora’s Death Row.”

Keen’s subject matter is as wide as the Texas skyline and can sometimes take you places dark and dreadful. He can cast you into a shadowy, paranoid persona where you know everyone is out to “Blow You Away.” In “Billy Gray” he shares the tender story from long ago of young Sarah’s tragic love for Billy. In the end, you’re there next to Billy’s headstone. Keen also has a very sharp wit that shines in the perennial favorite “Merry Christmas from the Family” and in the recent “Wireless in Heaven.”

Robert Earl Keen may very well be the father of Americana music (as some have called him). It’s unclear if he’s ever made that claim, so maybe he’s more like its illegitimate father. But he’s no deadbeat dad – after all, he’s nurtured and supported Americana for years and there are many singer-songwriters who claim him as their inspiration.
This article was originally published in Eugene Weekly, August 19, 2010

Read OKOM interview with Robert Earl Keen…

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