Faster Than Sound: Ryan Bingham Warms Up His Western Festival
Onetime local Americana star inaugurates his fest on a chilly day in Luckenbach
Alongside an Oscar, Grammy, and a role on television's Yellowstone, Americana star Ryan Bingham totes a genuine outlaw backstory of bull riding and hard-lived wanderings. Last weekend, the Texas-reared troubadour earned another stripe with his own Hill Country festival in partnership with Live Nation, following national trends toward artist-curated events. Fighting unseasonably chilly weather and harsh winds, the Western Music Festival was inaugurated Saturday, April 13, at the historic country music haven of Luckenbach. Bingham, Old 97's, and Son Volt headlined the event on the same grounds initially famed for recording Jerry Jeff Walker's Viva Terlingua.
Rather than a genre, Bingham says the event's title "is more the theme of where I come from." Reclining in his tour bus during the Western's early hours, the fest founder recalled first visiting Luckenbach – a nearly two-hour drive from Austin – more than a decade ago.
"I wanted to get back to the roots of people singing, telling stories, and playing guitars," the recent Austin Music Awards guest recalls. "Back to the simple kind of things."
My head immediately rings with the Waylon Jennings hit named for the tiny town: "Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of love/ Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys."
Bingham's down-home intentions launched with a Friday night dinner that ended in an acoustic campfire performance. His band, joined by friends and audience members, picked early Bingham heartache "Tell My Mother I Miss Her So." Out-of-towners say he chatted with the sold-out VIP crowd and kept music going past midnight.
The 38-year-old singer credits his wife, director Anna Axster, with executing their idea for a fest. Axster helps run her husband's management company and Axster Bingham Records, which put out February LP American Love Song. Bingham recorded his sixth album locally, with co-production by Charlie Sexton.
"[The Western] is how I would have a party at my house with barbecue in the afternoon," says the California-based artist. "Playing festivals is a drag when you're waiting to go on by the dumpster in some parking lot and it's hot as fuck."
Early highlight Elizabeth Cook offered fiery Americana to the festival's packed second stage, situated in the venue's open-air dance hall, built circa 1887. The existing bar and buildings proved prime infrastructure for a music festival. Although winds prompted tornado warnings, they looked magical in the surrounding oak trees.
Cook marked one of only two women artists on the 10-act assemblage, following cancellation from original headliner Margo Price. Alt.country hero Jay Farrar supplemented with Son Volt. Bingham says he hopes future years offer more diversity.
"I want it to be inclusive, because country music in general doesn't have the best reputation for being inclusive," he notes.
Austin blues powerhouse Jai Malano kicked off the Western experience, joining locals Jesse Dayton and Jamestown Revival on the lineup. Tennessee alt-rockers the Wild Feathers stood out in the day's first half with hearty harmonies, and emphasized "we're two-fifths Texan." The fest's second half shifted completely to the main stage.
Canadian traditionalist Colter Wall took on Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues." Nightfall then proved numbingly cold for unprepared Bingham-heads. Sales of American Love Song sweatshirts and every blanket, bathrobe, and "Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach" merchandise the general store had to offer thus spiked hard.
Long food truck/bar lines and supply shortages proved missteps for the production, whose scheduling forced hard choices for Central Texas roots lovers. The Western Festival ran concurrent with the Old Settler's Music Festival, which pulled off a comeback after moving to Tilmon a year earlier than anticipated. Bingham says his dates were already locked in when they realized the conflict, adding that Austin car show/music fest, the Continental Club's annual Lonestar Round-Up, also coincided with his event.
An older couple on the Luckenbach grounds say they took a break from their decade-running Old Settler's group to check out the Western. Veterans of the Kerrville Folk Festival and other outdoor scenes, they agree with multiple other attendees' opinion that any laid-back vibes were stifled by rules against chairs and festival re-entry, which forced purchasing of 24-ounce beers for $15. And judging from the twentysomethings I ran into from my high school, everybody was there to see Bingham play.
The headliner's curation falls into an uptick in boutique festival offerings centered around individual artists. Live Nation alone puts on the Roots' hometown Roots Picnic, Drake's Canadian OVO Fest, and Travis Scott's Houston-centric Astroworld Festival.
"I wish more bands would drive the creative side of [festivals], because it's more fun for everybody," offers Bingham.
Although a considerable portion of the crowd didn't make it 'til the end, Bingham's night-ending set was worth the freeze. Fun, fiddle-fueled takes like "Jingle and Go" led into the depths of his latest album's bluesy protest messaging. Somber "Beautiful and Kind" rose to balladic repetition of "It's gonna lead to love and peaceful times, oh Lord" with two backing singers. Clocking its first year, the Western Festival already promised on social media to do it again in 2020.
If producers walk closer to Bingham's vision, mapped in the rusty signs and storied stages of Luckenbach, it just might work.
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