The theme to “Crazy Heart,” written by Ryan Bingham and producer T Bone Burnett, perfectly captures the to-the-bone exhaustion felt by Bad Blake, the washed-up country singer played to perfection by Jeff Bridges.
For Bingham, who’s released two excellent albums on Nashville’s Lost Highway label, writing the song came easily. Director/screenwriter Scott Cooper handed him the script and said, “’Let me know if it inspires you to write anything.’ We went out on the road for a couple of weeks, I got back and read the script and the song just came out,” Bingham recalls. “I was like, ‘Man, this guy is like Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon and Willie. All these guys that I’ve looked up to for so long. It’s kind of easy to write this song, to describe this guy’s life and what all he’s gone through.”
While it seems like the inspiration for Blake’s character would be such real-life antecedents as Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and any number of rough-and-tumble country traditionalists, Burnett says it was actually Leonard Cohen.
As Burnett, Bingham and the other songwriters who crafted tunes for the film, including John Goodwin and Stephen Bruton, sat with Bridges and Cooper to create Blake’s back story-- such as whom he listened to as a child, what brought about his downfall, etc.—“the first person I brought up was Leonard Cohen,” Burnett says. “I thought Jeff has a deep chest voice so it was obvious he couldn’t sing in that normal Nashville [voice]…In my way of looking at that, I wanted him to have wanted to have been Leonard Cohen when he was young. To be a poet as Kris Kristofferson was a poet. We knew we had to make Bad Blake singular.”
Blake’s Texas roots were authenticated by Burnett, who grew up in Ft. Worth and by his close friend, Bruton, who passed away last year from cancer. It was vital to the pair that Blake felt like a true Texas troubadour. The kind the pair grew up seeing “Stephen and I go back to junior high; we’ve known each other our whole lives,” says Burnett, still referring to Bruton in the present tense. “He’s the one who played me the Stanley Bros. for the first time. His family had the record shop in town and all of us interested in music would gather there. It was a university of music there.”
It’s understandably bittersweet for Burnett as he runs the awards show gauntlet without Bruton by his side. “There’s a tremendous amount of pain associated with it because Stephen’s not there,” he says. “I’m really sorry to see that he’s not here to be with us for this ride.”
For Bingham, 28, even though “Crazy Heart” is a work of fiction, it still serves as a cautionary tale. “Watch your step. We could all end up like that really easy,” he says of Blake’s rundown world. “It opened my eyes up to you can go this way or that way. Choose the road you travel.”
That road may include Burnett producing a future Bingham album, but if not, the younger artist has already learned plenty from Burnett by osmosis. “Being honest with your music and your songs, that’s basically kind of it,” Bingham says. “Sticking to what you know and what you believe in. Music kind of chooses you in a way. I always say, ‘It’s kind of like music has me by the hair, dragging me down the road.’”
Bad Blake couldn’t have said it better himself.