Amazingly, Bingham's losses and bleak emotional struggles over the past few years and the dour mood of the country at the moment did not completely darken the atmosphere on "American Love Song," which actually bristles with an upbeat optimism as it simultaneously looks to the past as well as the future. Bingham attributes some of that to his audience.
"There's songs I can't play every night because it's a bit too much," he says. "Then I meet somebody at a show or people write me a letter and tell me about how they got through a similar situation, and that song helped them, so it becomes something more. I was insecure and vulnerable for a long time writing these kinds of songs, not necessarily intending for people to translate them to what they're going through. It has helped me get though a lot and move past it and then continued to see other folks join the process and acknowledge that stuff. It seems to help all around."
At least part of the elevated sonic profile of "American Love Song" could be credited to the presence of producer Charlie Sexton, Bingham's longtime friend and stellar musician in his own right. Their shared histories meant that songwriter and producer could communicate in a studio shorthand that precluded having to overexplain a sound or a lyric to get it across.
"I've known Charlie for years, and he's got a really great energy," says Bingham. "The reason I wanted to do this record with him is he really understands all these different places I grew up in, especially in the Texas area, and all those different styles of music. I didn't have to explain who Guy Clark and Townes (Van Zandt) and Terry Allen are or Lightnin' (Hopkins) or the Texas Tornados."
"All I had to do was send him the demos, and he was like, 'Oh, fuck yeah, let's get it on.' Just kind of let him do his thing. Most of the stuff he would arrange on piano first. He'd be like, 'Oh, I've got an idea,' and he'd disappear for two hours. I kind of know three cowboy chords at one end of the guitar so I always take these experiences and opportunities to learn something, and Charlie's always very open with his knowledge and willing to share his secrets."
While "American Love Song" isn't Bingham's most personal album by a long shot, it is certainly his most political. In "America," the album's next to last song, Bingham sings plaintively over his fingerpicked soundtrack, "America, where have you gone?" which echoes a similar sentiment expressed by John Kay and Steppenwolf over a half century ago in the song "Monster;" "America, where are you now? Don't you care about your sons and daughters? Don't you know we need you now, we can't fight alone against the monster."
Is it because the United States still doesn't know what it is 243 years after gaining its freedom, or is it because it knows exactly what it is and doesn't want to change?
"I don't know. I've been asking that question for a long time," says Bingham with a resigned laugh. "I come from a pretty rural area and only got out of there due to my family and playing music and getting to travel the world and see how other people live. And then I go to some towns when we're on tour and meet people who have never been outside their county line. There's a lot of fear out there, there's a lot of people who genuinely believe everything they hear on the news and they're genuinely scared. I've had people say, 'How can you go to Europe and tour? Aren't you scared of the terrorists getting you at your shows?' I'm just as scared playing Las Vegas as anywhere."
For Bingham, the politics of "American Love Song" is as personal as the album's autobiographical aspects, because it comes from the same intensely personal well.
"I've grown up with the music of the '60s and '70s, Dylan and the Stones and Woody Guthrie, and I've heard those messages loud and clear, and it baffles me that we're in the same spot. I guess I feel an obligation to say something in the music because I know how much those songs and those artists meant to me. It was refreshing to hear that stuff as a kid when nobody else was talking about it. It was almost an outlet to another world, and it enabled me to open my heart to anybody and everybody out there."
"I think the songs I write - whether they have a political essence to them, if they ruffle some feathers, and there will always be people that don't like that – if there's one kid in that little town that's looking for a way out and just needs somebody to acknowledge that, then I feel like I'm doing it."