HOUSTON — THERE are nights when Ryan Bingham sounds just like what he is, and there's no shame in that.
He sounds like a kid. Twenty-six years old, on paper, but a kid, really, who can write a pretty song about truck stops and pawnshops but was still carrying around a chord book not all that long ago. A musician so raw that some prospective band members have thrown up their hands and bailed on him because his songs, all mismatched chords and misplaced bridges, don't make sense to people who know what they're doing.
Then there are nights like this.
It's a blustery, mischief-making night in Houston. Bingham is playing Fitzgerald's, a beer joint that ran out of letters for the marquee, so it says RYA BGAM on the side of the building. The graffiti over the toilet says "JESUS VOTES REPUBLICAN," and the ratty wooden floor in front of the stage rises and falls like a fat man's belly when the crowd gets going. It's his kind of place, and it's packed.
Most in the audience are there to see Joe Ely, or at least they think they are.
Ely is virtual nobility in the West Texas songwriting kingdom, which has produced, over the years, a startlingly deep bench of talent -- Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Terry Allen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Backstage, Ely suggests, graciously, that the show is a "co-bill," that it's coincidence that Bingham is going on first.
The truth is, Bingham's got less than an hour out there. It's all he needs. His belly full of pork chops and Lone Star beers, Bingham rips through a dizzying set of 13 songs, with elements of roadhouse rock, beach music, mariachi, new country and old.
By the time he's done, his voice is so throaty he sounds like a dying man's last wish. When he puts down his guitar and strides offstage, people in the front row are banging their fists on the stage and chanting "Bing-ham! Bing-ham!" and it's so absurdly over the top you'd think they've been healed at an old-timey revival.
Bingham seems a little taken aback himself. Backstage, he stands in a corner, drops his cowboy hat between the toes of his boots and bends over with his hands on his knees. Sweat drips from his nose, and he says nothing until he notices a visitor.
"Hey, man," he drawls. "You havin' a good night?"
JUST about everybody who hears Bingham for the first time assumes it's all a put-on, that no one his age could have this many miles and hardships behind him.
He hasn't received much press, despite the release last fall of his first major-label album, "Mescalito." Some of the attention has been laced with skepticism; one alternative publication said he had fallen victim to "absurd self-mythologizing."
That's what Ely figured too, after someone handed him a Bingham tape a few years back. It seemed a little silly for a then-24-year-old to be singing about "being a desperado in West Texas for so long," about being "lost on them back roads so many times I've gone blind."
But Ely, like most who have come across Bingham, learned quickly not to underestimate him. The more Bingham unspools, the more it becomes clear he is authentically wayworn and wounded, that his life has, as his songs contend, hurtled between cursed and charmed.
"That's a rough-and-tumble world out there in West Texas," said Ely, who grew up in Amarillo and Lubbock. "It's not a very easy place, even if things are going good. There comes a time when you might either wind up in the pen or you can pick up your guitar and sing your way out. That's what Ryan did. I could relate to it."
He was born just across the New Mexico border, in the boom-and-bust oil town Hobbs. His grandfather was a cattle rancher and owned 72 square miles, each more stark than the last, between Hobbs and Carlsbad.
Bingham's family lost the ranch amid a money dispute and would soon see more bust than boom. His father became a roughneck, an old-fashioned oil field worker who chased his work, first to Bakersfield, Calif., then to Texas -- to Midland, Odessa, Laredo. They never stayed anywhere long; Bingham eventually stopped unpacking, then reduced his belongings to a cardboard box that he carried from town to town.
His parents, he said, "were not mean people. They just couldn't get it together." Trouble came in heaps: "Fights. Pills. Alcohol." One day, he came home and slumped on the couch. The TV wasn't working but something underneath the set caught his eye. It was a mirror topped with a pile of cocaine.
"I thought: 'Well, no wonder the electricity got turned off again,' " he said.
Before his 17th birthday, he dropped out of school, where he'd grown tired of being the new kid in a small town, and left home for good.
"It just wasn't working out," he said quietly.
He was befriended by a group of Mexican boys who introduced him to jackpot bullrides. His uncle had ridden bulls professionally and had imparted a few tricks of the trade, including the ability to sense how close he could get to the edge before he had to jump free of an animal.