Welcome to the Depression, an honest portrait of the “Junky Star” by Ryan Bingham and The Dead Horses, a down and outer that could be any of us or somebody we know.  In fact, if I start counting all of the friends I have who are lost to drug addiction, prescription or otherwise or lost a job because their skill set is no longer needed, I could have wrote this story. 

While “The Weary Kind” won Ryan Bingham an Academy Award, recognition and new friends, he was preparing to release a bleak and beautiful effort of a wanderer leaving behind the hopeless junkies and lost jobs for the possibilities of California.

During the Great Depression and Dust Bowl days many who lost their land or livelihood left for California’s oil fields and Agriculture. It was a different place then. Merle Haggard’s parents were some of those souls who found happiness and work in the Central Valley in Oildale. If it was not the best paying work, it was steady and provided a way for the next generation to improve upon their simple means.

Oildale CA during theBoom

This time California itself is feeling the pressure of a busted housing boom, tech boom and any other kind of boom they had in the past.  As we set out “The Poet” writes “Sweethearts kiss in the dark, Homeless sleep in the park, I myself just move on through town…oh how I love the highway sun, the poet in the dark writes down his song in blood”.

As he travels the lonely road, the character in Ryan’s songs scribbles lyrics on found paper with a guitar on his back. In “The Wandering” he sings in a broken voice that is as distinctive as Bob Dylan “Disregard the time, find your peace of mind, among the wandering”.

The Doors

We are into track number three and he hasn’t yet sung about his goal to make it to California, “Strange Feelin’ in the Air” just shows an uncomfortable drifter “I’m feelin’ strange, in this town, I feel deranged, as I look around” with an echo to Jim Morrison and The Doors’ “People are strange when you’re a stranger, Faces look ugly when you’re alone”.

I’m beginning to realize I haven’t heard any band this empty since The Cowboy Junkies “Femme Fatale”; in fact this is almost like a Country Album made in Berlin (think “Walk on the Wildside, Lou Reed) by the love child of Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain. The hooks are only implied but understood.

Finally in “Junky Star” lies the thesis of somebody taking away his farm so “I shot him dead and hung my head, and drove off in his car, so on the run with a smoking gun, I’m headin’ for the coast” only to find himself “sleepin on the Santa Monica Pier, with the junkies and the stars” and finds himself telling God “that the whole damn world was waiting around to die, but not me this time, I left trouble far behind”.

But the truth is you can’t leave trouble behind and this is the total opposite of Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times” where Bob was asked “why something so hopeful in such troubled times?”, he just shared that when you went back to films and music during the Depression and World War II things were always so bright and sunny as an opposite to what was going on and now Ryan no longer calls it just a Recession.

“Depression” makes it very clear “Would I wake up for a lifetime, lose my job in this Depression, well I don’t care, cause I got your love, in this Depression”. As long as he has the love of his life he can make it and let his strung out friends know “…we’ve gone out to California”.

“Junky Star” lets you know there is a Depression going on. The Depression has been getting deeper every year for musicians where the only hope is to make enough to stay out on the road and have enough to keep your apartment when you get back home. The music business started shrinking long before 2008. Whereas a classic album or a piece of Cotton Candy like NSync could sell six million or more, now we talk about a few mega stars going Platinum in a year.

Jobs have been taken from us by a “monkey puzzle” called a Computer and by companies finding cheaper labor overseas. We don’t even know how we can replace what has been taken away. We are only told to spend our way out of these bad times. There are records of people who spent themselves into comfort only to realize they played the fool and became slaves to their ease.

“Junky Star” gives way to another character mindlessly shot by a stranger, “I said you must be down on your luck, I’m out of money and I’m all out of time, he pulled the trigger and I fell to my knees, my spirit left and then my body went cold” the biggest thing the talking dead man worries about is his honey and let’s her know “I’m everything in between the harmonies singin loud, Hallelujah”.

These are the tough luck stories that happen maybe not to you or me but they happen to somebody. Ryan has decided to be the voice of the most difficult California stories one could imagine.

He shares his own thoughts about what we are becoming and in his own “John Lennon-Imagine” style, “there’s just no time for traditions, tying people down to class when everyone’s a shade of green that suffers in the grass of greed”. Maybe the problem is too many can be bought.

Dust Bowl Days

Dead Horses in the middle of the road

California seems to be the last hope even if only a change of location. In “Lay my Head on the Rail”, he sings”The head lights are blinding and the diesels are on fire, hauling ass down a mountain pass to the California state line”.

If you wonder what it feels like after a lifetime of wandering only to find yourself looking back, it is there in “Self-Righteous Wall” in the lyrics “I guess you just couldn’t keep up with the wild horse that you stole, you set yourself on the back steps and you feel yourself growin old, you feel your gray hairs runnin back to a place you left so cold”.

I guess the path is over when you find yourself only looking back.

“Junky Star” is a thematic piece told in first person that never strays from the concept from start to finish. The Who almost did that with “Tommy” except they threw a curve ball in with “Pinball Wizard” for Rock Music Journalist Nik Cohn  in hopes of a great review. The 1960’s were a different time, back then that little difference might be enough to get a radio hit.

Nowadays, recordings might as well be something that means a lot to the writer, in hopes that the listener can find something he can relate to.  If there was a “Tommy” written about the down and out “in this Depression”, Ryan has done it.

Village Recorder mural

It’s quite the paradox that this was recorded at The Village Recorder just one block off Santa Monica Boulevard with its mural of California falling into the ocean.  There are so many huge albums that were done there such as Steely Dan “Aja” and Joe’s Garage by Frank Zappa. This album will at the very least be the Big Star #1 Record of modern Americana.  While this may be a gut wrenching piece of work, I don’t remember anything but great times at The Village Recorder back in late 1989-1990 listening to a mix with Producer Howard Benson or talking about the problems of getting tape for those crazy Akai recorders with Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. In fact I can see myself walking a couple of blocks over to pick up some new guitar strings at West LA Music.  While I am at it, let’s go up another block and get one of those real Carne Asada Burritos.

The Liner notes and the accompanying booklet discards anything unimportant such as who wrote the song, who the publisher is or what performing rights organization is involved. The focus is on the music; even T Bone Burnett lists more credits than the band.  Instead of letting you know what brand of strings Corby Schaub uses or thanking some local music store or fan club the special thanks goes out to “Our Family of Friends who have helped make this all possible”. I was not even familiar with Mastering Engineer Gavin Lurssen, but I am now. There is no annoying distortion by trying to make the CD “louder”. I perceive undebatable warm clean Mastering.

Last stop California!

T Bone Burnett has yet again produced a project that will no doubt be in my top ten for the year. This isn’t an album you would want to listen to when you are in the middle of the tech boom but the American Dream is on the verge of disappearing in these stories of the down trodden that hope to turn a  corner by going to California. If you get to California and find out that the struggle is even harder than the one you left behind, then all there is left to do is go back and face problems head on.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN      thenashvillebridge@hotmail.com