The Untold Truth Of Ryan Bingham

It's a safe bet that young Ryan Bingham, growing up in the wide open spaces of rural New Mexico, never envisioned that one day he'd be part of one of television's most popular series. Yet, that's precisely what happened, thanks to Bingham's recurring role as ex-con Walker on "Yellowstone," the modern-day western starring Kevin Costner as the patriarch of a family-owned cattle-ranching empire in Montana. 

While the show has been met by mixed reviews from TV critics, "Yellowstone" has become wildly popular with viewers; according to a report from Deadline, by the end of its fourth season in 2021, "Yellowstone" stood head and shoulders above anything else as television's undisputed No. 1 show, "across broadcast, cable, and premium."

Being on a massive television hit such as "Yellowstone" has certainly raised Bingham's profile, yet how much do the show's fans really know about this multitalented actor and musician? To find out, keep on reading. This is the untold truth of Ryan Bingham.

Acting isn't the primary occupation of Ryan Bingham

For viewers of "Yellowstone," Ryan Bingham is best known for his role as Walker, an ex-convict whose job as a ranch hand on the Duttons' 6666 Ranch has led to much drama. In addition to "Yellowstone," Bingham's IMDb credits also include acting roles in the films "Hostiles," "Crazy Heart," "Jackie & Ryan," and "A Country Called Home." 

If Bingham's roster of screen credits seems sparse, that's understandable when considering acting isn't his main vocation, but merely a sideline. In fact, Bingham is primarily known as a singer and songwriter; according to Bingham's official website, he's released seven albums, starting with his 2007 solo debut "Mescalito," and several more featuring his backing band, The Dead Horses. A review from Paste deemed Bingham's 2019 album "American Love Song" to be "his rawest record yet," described as "a soundtrack to accompany today's struggle for survival, a paean to those that are daring and determined despite all the odds."

As Bingham explained in an interview with Cowboys & Indians, he can trace his wide swath of musical influences to the eclectic array of LPs that his uncle retrieved from an old jukebox. Those records, he said, included "everything from Bob Wills to Bob Marley. A lot of the Roll­ing Stones, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt. I was always a fan of the music, but I didn't really have much guidance."

The unusual way Ryan Bingham was cast on Yellowstone

While "Yellowstone" isn't Ryan Bingham's first screen credit, his role on the show came about as something of a fluke. As Bingham revealed in an interview with Pop Culture, he first met "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan while he was working on his film "Wind River," on which he was both director and screenwriter. "He contacted me about writing a song for the film," Bingham explained. 

While Bingham never wound up writing anything that fit the movie, he and Sheridan "kept in touch and remained friends." When Sheridan began developing "Yellowstone," Sheridan once again approached Bingham about "possibly writing some songs and using some of the songs that I already had." It was during that discussion that Bingham shared some details from his past that proved intriguing to Sheridan. "And so he said, 'Heck, I got to write you into this show.' And so that's how that all started," Bingham said.

Elaborating in an interview with the "Bobby Bones Show," Bingham noted that Sheridan created Walker specifically for him, with plans for the character to recur on the show. However, Bingham added, those plans were initially very much up in the air, entirely contingent on the quality of his performance. "He basically told me, 'You know, we'll see how it goes. If you do good, then we'll keep you on.' And he said, 'If you suck, we'll just kill you off,'" Bingham recalled.

Ryan Bingham is an Oscar winner

Not only is Ryan Bingham an acclaimed recording artist, he's also won an Academy Award. During the 2010 Oscars, Bingham and producer T-Bone Burnett shared the Best Original Song Oscar for "The Weary Kind" from the Jeff Bridges-starring film "Crazy Heart."

While winning an Oscar could easily go to someone's head, it proved to have the opposite effect on Bingham. "As good as it was, it helped me realize what the most important things are for me: going back to the songwriting and the music," he told The Hollywood Reporter. A decade later, Bingham looked back at his Oscar win in an interview with The Bluegrass Situation, revealing it all happened during a particularly bleak time. "It was pretty tough when that film came out," Bingham explained. "A lot of people didn't know that my mother had passed away just before it came out, and my father passed away soon after. People kept asking me to play that song all the time, and they kept saying, 'Aren't you happy about winning an Oscar? You must be having the best time of your life.' But it was actually one of the hardest things I've ever been through." 

His Oscar, Bingham told NPR, was "still as heavy as it was when I first held it. Brings back a lot of feelings, that's for sure. It's still kind of hard for me to wrap my head around a lot of that."

He has a passion for surfing

Having grown up in landlocked New Mexico and known for his musical output within the country/Americana genre, it may seem odd that Ryan Bingham has become a fan of surfing. As he told The Surfer's Journal, his first experience riding the waves came from a friend in Corpus Christi, Texas, who took him surfing early one morning. Suffering severe sunburn and ongoing bleeding from a tattoo he'd gotten the previous day, Bingham admitted he was "a total train wreck, but just absolutely hooked."

Bingham began surfing even more after moving to Los Angeles, although it took some time before he managed to get any good at it. "I just got my a** handed to me every time I'd go but I went twice a day until I got it," he explained, joking that his wife suspected "I was having an affair or something." Surfing, he added, also proved to be therapeutic when he returned home after being on the road. "I'd get up at four and get there right at sunrise," he said. "I need that getaway from the madness."

Speaking with Grimy Goods, Bingham shared another aspect about surfing that he finds particularly attractive. "I could just get out there and take my mind off everything," he said, explaining how surfing forced him to live right in the moment. "You don't have time to think about it, you just have to go and react," he said. "I love the dance."

The reason he thrives in solitude

Promoting his 2015 album "Fear and Saturday Night" in an interview with Rolling Stone, Ryan Bingham revealed he'd written the album's songs while living in an Airstream trailer in the mountains. As he explained, he requires a certain level of solitude when writing. "When I started playing, I kind of lived out of my truck. I had a camper set on the back, and I'd just disappear out in the desert, or find these real desolate places and set up camp for a while and hang out," he said. "I have to be alone to really reflect on what's been happening in my life."

Speaking with Leo Weekly, Bingham discussed how being alone, preferably in a remote locale, has always been conducive to his songwriting process. "I've always kind of had to find places of solitude to write. I have a bit of a short attention span, so I get distracted pretty easily. It's good for me to get away from day-to-day distractions somewhere, where I can just reflect," he said.

Interestingly, Bingham has also pointed out that his acting role on "Yellowstone" provides a welcome break from all that necessary solitude. "Acting is a bit of a different outlet for expressing things, I guess," he told The Line of Best Fit. "I've definitely tried to balance the two, turning one off and another on which has been a bit of a learning curve for me, but I find it refreshing."

Ryan Bingham was a rodeo bull rider

One of the key reasons that "Yellowstone" creator Taylor Sheridan created the role of Walker for Ryan Bingham was learning about Bingham's past, growing up surrounded by horses and livestock, and then competing as a bull-riding rodeo performer. "Once we met and hung out a bit, he found out that I used to rodeo and grew up ranching and knew how to ride horses and all that. He said, 'Man, I got to get you in the show if you can do all that stuff,'" Bingham told Repeat Replay.

As Bingham told Vanity Fair, he'd been riding horses his entire life, and riding bulls was something he kind of fell into. "I grew up in New Mexico and Texas doing that," said Bingham of his rodeo days. "My uncle rode bulls and my grandfather was a rancher; junior rodeos were like Little League in our family," he explained. 

Speaking with NPR, Bingham recalled the rush he experienced hanging on for dear life while an agitated bull did everything within its considerable power to throw him off. "You're in the middle of their back, and they're spinning and jumping, and it's just blowing and going, and the dust is flying and crowd is yelling," he said. "It's like driving down the highway, 90 miles an hour, and throwing the steering wheel out of the window."

Ryan Bingham once shared a bill with racing mice

Had Ryan Bingham not decided to unleash his creativity as a songwriter, he was well on track for a life of manual labor. In fact, Bingham revealed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he was working a physically taxing day job when he began performing for tips at local bars. That led to some "little gigs," where he'd earn anywhere from $50 to $100 per night performing. Being able to earn money doing something he loved proved to be an eye opener.

"Most of the time, I had to have some kind of day job, doing hard labor, construction or digging holes," he explained. "I could go to a little bar and make about the same amount of money in a couple hours as I did digging holes all day. That's when I realized: I don't know if I'll ever make it or become anything, but if I could make 100 bucks a night playing in bars with my guitar, it's a hell a lot better than digging holes."

Of course, those early days weren't exactly rife with showbiz glamor. "I remember we went to this bar inside of a motel," he recalled for NPR. "This was like a really, really rundown motel, and they had mice races. And on the marquee, I remember it said, 'Ryan Bingham and Mice Races Wednesday night.' And it was the strangest thing I think I've ever seen in my life."

Ryan Bingham launched his own Texas music festival

In 2019, Ryan Bingham and then-wife Anna Axster (he filed for divorce in 2021) launched the Western Music Festival, with the inaugural festival held that year in Luckenbach, Texas. Plans for the second fest in 2020, however, had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While plans to relaunch in 2021 never came to fruition, Bingham told Texas Highways that holding the event in Luckenbach had been a no-brainer, given the connection he established with the town when he was just starting out. "It's such a special place to me," he said. "That's where I really learned to write songs. Luckenbach has that hippie vibe, but cowboys are also welcome and part of that, too. The culture is friendly and nonjudgmental. It's just a place to be yourself."

Discussing the 2019 festival with Repeat Replay, Bingham admitted that putting the event together was "fun but it's a lot of work." Having played at numerous music festivals over the years, he'd witnessed that the vast majority lacked a sense of community, and as a result didn't encourage the acts to perform together. That, he explained, was something he was adamant about avoiding in his festival. "We really wanted to make something that was a bit more personal and more like we were inviting people over to our house and having a big barbecue and playing guitars around the campfire and singing songs," he explained. 

His dog has developed a following on social media

Fans of Ryan Bingham's social media platforms have come to know another member of his family, his dog Boo. Among the many photos of Boo that Bingham has shared are a tweet featuring the dog hanging out with horses, another of Boo and his "girlfriend," and a Facebook post including a photo of Boo and his favorite toy squirrel.

Speaking with Texas Highways in 2020, Bingham recalled how Boo was "a great dog to take out on the road. He's a shepherd, so he was good at rounding up everybody. He'd wake us up in the morning. Plus, when you're in some sketchy situations out on the road, it's good to have a big dog with you." Nowadays, however, Bingham revealed that Boo remains at his Los Angeles home when he's out on tour, standing guard over the singer's young children. "He sees that as his job now. He won't leave them," said Bingham. 

In fact, Bingham told Grimy Goods back in 2015, shortly after the arrival of his daughter, Boo was both "crazy protective" of the infant but also "a bit wary" of her. "He likes to be close to her but not close enough where she can grab his hair really hard," he said with a laugh. "If we lay her down for a nap downstairs, he goes down there by her crib and hangs out with her. It's pretty amazing. He's her protector."

How his 'con man' father influenced his music

Looking back at his childhood, Ryan Bingham has admitted that his family life was far from tranquil. Both his parents, he told Lone Star Music Magazine, struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse. Watching their lives unravel, he admitted, had shaped his own adult relationship with alcohol and drugs. "I think that stuff scared me so bad — ending up like that — that I never really fell into it," he said. "I haven't avoided alcohol, but I keep my distance from it in a certain way, and I'm not into using hard drugs. I like to smoke some weed every now and then, have a few beers and some whiskey, but I'm not a professional boozer."

When dealing with his late father, Bingham told "The Off Camera Show," trust had been a major issue "because my dad was such a bulls***ter and a bit of a con man and lied a lot. He was a pathological liar." 

However, Bingham also believes that it was his father's dishonesty that pushed him to pursue absolute honesty in his music. "I've always felt like you had to be honest with writing songs as if you're having a conversation with somebody," he explained. "How do you expect them to believe what you're saying if you don't believe what you're saying?" 

He landed a record deal with some help from a member of The Black Crowes

When Ryan Bingham first arrived in Los Angeles in order to seriously pursue a career in music, he landed a gig performing at a club called King King. "There were only a couple people in the bar that night," he recalled in an interview with Medium. "Karla who ran the club, and the guitarist for The Black Crowes, Marc Ford." After Bingham had completed his set, Ford approached him, "and said he wanted to produce a record for me." Within months, Bingham was signed to Lost Highway Records.

True to his word, Ford produced Bingham's 2007 debut, "Mescalito," as well as his 2009 followup "Roadhouse Son." "When I met Marc, I'd never even played an electric guitar before," Bingham told PopMatters. "And on those first two records, he bought me an electric guitar, off eBay for like a hundred bucks, and gave me a slide and said, 'Here, I think this fits your personality.'"

Bingham also credited Ford with giving his records "kind of an older sound." As he told CMT, "I don't think Marc listens to much music that wasn't recorded before 1970. So I think just as far as his outlook on the whole production part of it — and I think, sonically, the whole record, the drums, the guitar tones and everything like that — has kind of an old school approach to it that we really dug."

How he maintains his cowboy attitude living in Los Angeles

Even though Ryan Bingham has called Los Angeles his home for well over a decade, he refuses to go Hollywood. Part of that, he revealed in an interview with Grimy Goods, is that he's resided on the outskirts of L.A., in Topanga Canyon. "When you're up there you don't feel like you're in the city at all," he said, describing the area as "a bit of an escape."

When he does return to his home in L.A. after acting in "Yellowstone" or performing on the road, Bingham tends to "hide out." Admitting that he and his then-wife would occasionally head into Hollywood to catch some live music or watch a film, Bingham insisted he's "really not out in the scene very much or in clubs and bars. When I get home from the road the last place I want to go is a bar [laughs]. I just need a break and somewhere quiet. I try not to get too caught up in the scene."

That degree of detachment, he told the Los Angeles Times, has allowed him the luxury to maintain close ties with his earlier self, the teenage cowboy who rode bulls for rodeo competitions. "I think there's still a lot of romanticism left in the world about that cowboy way of life," Bingham explained. "I think people are still in awe of that in a way."

He has a love-hate relationship with being on the road

Traveling the world to share his music with fans is something about which Ryan Bingham has come to develop mixed feelings. "It's kind of a love/hate relationship," he told CMT of being on the road. As Bingham recalled, part of that stems from his childhood, when he and his parents "always moved a lot," clarifying that "wasn't because we wanted to, it was because we had to."

However, there's also an element of being on the road that agrees with him. Traveling, he explained, brings "a freedom that you have that you're not tied down to a house and bills and stuff, and all that really matters is that you're just out in the wide open and kind of throwing caution to the wind." 

On the flip side, Bingham said he also enjoyed returning home, where he found it "pretty comforting" to be able to come back to "a home base where you can chill out." During the first few months he lived there, "I think I slept for two or three weeks at a time just from being on the road for, like, 10 years straight and finally having a place to wind down and kind of come back to reality and catch up with myself," he recalled.

How he once wound up flat broke in Paris

Before heading to L.A., Ryan Bingham had been hired for a wild west show in Disneyland Paris. When he arrived, he told Medium, he learned the guy he was supposed to be replacing decided not to quit, leaving him jobless and stranded after having "literally left Texas with a hundred dollar bill in my pocket and one-way plane ticket to Paris."

Making matters worse, he told Lone Star Music, he spent a solid chunk of that hundred on beer during a layover in London, unwisely exchanging his money for British pounds and leaving the coins he assumed was "change" as a tip. "So I get to France and exchange my money there and I had like five bucks," he joked. "I'd been up all night, it's the middle of October in Paris, it's freezing cold, my bag had busted on the plane or when they searched it so it's all duct taped together, half of my clothes are hanging out of it and then the handle broke, so I had to lug this big f***in' bag around and my guitar," he added.

Luckily, another member of the wild west show offered him a place to crash. He spent his days busking, singing "in the subway, in Irish Pubs, wherever I could make some change," he said. Admitting those days were formative to his development as a performer, Bingham also isn't one to romanticize the experience. "It sucked a**," he joked.