It’s been eight years since Ryan Bingham was plucked from a life touring the backroads of New Mexico and West Texas and launched into stardom with “The Weary Kind.” The film-defining tune from director Scott Cooper’s debut “Crazy Heart,” a collaboration with legendary musician T Bone Burnett, was everything an Oscar-winning original song ought to be, one of the finest examples of a track organically infused with the narrative of the film.
Bingham returns to the circuit this year with “How Shall a Sparrow Fly,” a fireside ditty gracefully folded into the story of Cooper’s dark and emotional western “Hostiles” (hitting theaters on Dec. 22). It’s one of the 70 qualifying original songs up for Oscar consideration.
As with “Crazy Heart,” Bingham has a small role in the film. He stars as a cavalry sergeant alongside Christian Bale, and this time, he gets to perform on screen. “How Shall a Sparrow Fly” is very stripped down in context, though, just Bingham, a crackling fire, and a mandolin. But he has produced a more epic version with orchestral accompaniment to be released on a soundtrack album along with composer Max Richter’s score.
From his hillside home in Topanga, Calif., Bingham spoke to Variety about writing the new track, life on the road, and living in the afterglow of Oscar glory. He’s a few years older now, a few years wiser. He released his last three albums through a self-owned label with his wife, Anna Axster, and their family is growing, with the addition of two young children proving to be a new source of inspiration. He hopes to release a new album within the year as he toils away at 20 or so developing songs in his home studio.
“How Shall a Sparrow Fly” will be released as a digital single on Dec. 22 by Deutsche Grammophon. You can listen to it exclusively now via the streaming link below.
Variety: So what was the process here? Were you cast in the role and then later you guys decided to work up a song or was that all part of the same conversation?
Ryan Bingham: I was talking to Scott and I had sent him some video of me doing some wild stuff on horses. And he said, “Man, I’m doing a western. Why don’t you come out and be in it?” Then he sent me the script and the song came pretty quick after reading the script.
I don’t know. Sometimes they come just after a few minutes and then sometimes they don’t ever come. I had had the script for a little bit and we were on tour in Europe. I was in this hotel and the room was kind of on the corner of the building and it overlooked the ocean. It was like horses and carriages and cobblestone streets and just very old-world looking. I had a mandolin on the road and I just came up with this melody and riff and wrote the song in that room in like five minutes. I made a little video of it and sent it to Scott and he said, “That’s it.”
What was the inspiration point? Just the general mood of the script? Or did the character you’re playing stir up some thoughts for it as well?
My initial thought was, “What kind of music would somebody play in 1890?” I knew from the script my character was named Sgt. Malloy — I just assumed he was of Irish descent — and also that they were going to be on horseback from New Mexico to Montana. It was this small party, so what would they be able to carry? He’s not going to be packing this big J-45 Gibson guitar! So I had the mandolin and figured that would be feasible. And I just felt like the song would maybe be something that his mother sang to him. Back in those days, music was mainly stuff that people sang around the household. I thought it would have an Irish-Scot background, or maybe an Appalachia bluegrass thing, wherever their family came from or ended up and what that influence would be.
When it came to the lyrics, I knew it couldn’t be a song that was going to have a big chorus and a big hook or something that would be like a pop song on the radio. I wanted it to feel like something that could be sung in those times. I was just thinking of this kind of lonely ballad, a sea shanty kind of thing, and for it to be more of a character in the movie, too, to stand on its own. That’s where I started.
Did you go about investigating music in the era a bit more or did you just go from your gut and own knowledge?
Kind of at the same time I was really into listening to old Irish folk songs. I was trying to write songs for a record as well and I wanted it to be a lot of ballads and more acoustic-driven songs, and I was studying those kind of progressions in songs. Then Scott came along with this.
It’s nice that you get to actually perform it in the movie this time around. With “The Weary Kind,” Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell got most of the spotlight in the actual film.
Yeah, and that’s another thing, I didn’t know if he would really use it or if the film would need a song. Or if maybe he’d use the melody or something in the score and I’d sing the song somewhere else. I didn’t want it to be in there if it took away from the film. It just had to fit and make sense.
Speaking of “The Weary Kind,” what has the afterglow been like for you, winning an Oscar and a Grammy for that?
It’s been so long now, six or seven years. I haven’t thought about it too much. When I look at my situation before all that happened, I was still touring around in a van with a band. I didn’t know how things were going to develop. That definitely created a lot of opportunities for me to get out and play for more folks.
Did you have a lot of people in the industry reaching out, asking you to contribute stuff to movies?
A little bit. There were a few people calling me to do like a singing cowboy, kind of the same thing, but it wasn’t like I was getting offered all this stuff, writing all these songs. It was more when I would go out and play live, people who had heard the song or heard of the film would come out and want to check us out. It helped develop a fanbase.
Did you feel any sort of resentment toward that song? Sometimes when an artist becomes so well known for a single song, it can become a bit of an albatross.
Man, I might have right when it was going on, just because, for one thing I was pretty young still and pretty insecure in ways. I was still trying to develop as an artist and figure out what I was doing, so to have one song define everything you’re doing at the moment, I think it just scared me a little bit, having that pressure. You know, “Shoot, what am I going to do now? So from now on do I have to write songs just like this?” I remember feeling at the time, the band I was with, we had a lot of rock and roll influence as well, rock-driven and blues, and there were instances where people would come out and just want us to play ballads. At the same time, it taught me that a lot of fans have a lot of appreciation for the stripped-down stuff, so I would always make a point of stripping the band back and playing a few songs acoustic. That gave me a lot of confidence to play some of those songs that I may have felt I needed a band with me before. A lot of times we were playing these just rough roadhouses and dive bars and a lot of people didn’t necessarily go there to listen to music. They went there to drink, fight, all that stuff, and they just wanted a loud background band. So I think for a while, I felt like I needed all that noise just to keep the energy up. But then I started noticing people standing out in the crowd listening to the songs, so that encouraged me to just let things settle down and play some of those ballads.
So basically it helped evolve the overall shape of your shows.
Yeah, it did. And to go out and write new songs, too. I really enjoy writing these stripped-down songs. This stuff from Townes Van Zandt and Lightnin’ Hopkins and Woody Guthrie and Dylan, those were all huge influences on me and the kind of music I like to play. So it made me more comfortable being in my own skin.