With experience as his tutor, one-man band flows with roll
Special to The Commercial Appeal
Scott H. Biram, slowed by a leg injury that he incurred while on tour in France last winter, loaded up his Econoline van and hit the road this week for a tour swing that brings him to the Hi-Tone Café on Saturday.
His only company as he winds his way across the Deep South over the next month and a half will be a CB radio.
“I usually take a merch guy and sound guy on the road, but this time it’s just me,” says Biram.
It’s an appropriately lonely existence for a man who bills himself as “the dirty old one-man band.” And that sense of loneliness pervades much of his music; haunted, amped-up country-blues stompers that hit you like a spectral AM radio transmission from 1953.
Over three records, this Texas native has redefined the one-man band tradition, a specialty of stars like John Lee Hooker and more obscure figures like Joe Hill Louis, combining the raw feeling of the blues with the punk bluster of the White Stripes and world-weary poetry of a Steve Earle or Townes Van Zandt.
“I’m obviously a control freak. I mean I’m a one-man band, for Christ’s sake,” says Biram from his home in Austin.
“When I’m home I spend a lot of time by myself at home with the shades drawn. I try to get out but stuff just gets me down. If you listen to some of my songs you can hear me trying to overcome that stuff. … That’s me breaking out for a minute, trying to get over that depressed state. And then I get into the gloom again. And then I get angry and that’s when the metal comes out and the shame-on-you music comes out. I’ve got a lot of different parts to me and I just throw them out for everybody to see.”
Biram grew up in San Marcos, Texas, most notable as the home of Texas State University, which for much of the late 20th century was consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top party schools. The notoriously hard-living Biram certainly learned about partying while living in San Marcos, but he also learned about music.
When he was 6, his father took him to see Doc Watson at the Armadillo World Headquarters in nearby Austin, Texas. The next touchstone was a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. By the time he was a teenager, Biram, was playing in a “punk-metal” band that specialized in old Metallica and Black Flag. Then when he was 18, he acquired a banjo and abruptly switched gears to join a bluegrass outfit .
“When the bluegrass band broke up and the punk band broke, I wanted to keep traveling and touring and the only way I could think to do it was to crank it up,” he says. “I wanted to keep playing in rock clubs, and it’s kind of hard to play in rock clubs by yourself. You can’t be a singer-songwriter on a stool playing that cheesy (expletive). So I just turned it up,” says Biram, now 35. “I held onto my rock roots and my country roots and my blues roots and it all just mixes together.”
Manipulating his harmonica and his ’59 Gibson through a small wall of amplifiers while pounding furiously with his foot, Biram made an impression, filling up as much musical space as a lot of bigger bands.
He also made a show out of his sheer audacity. Following songwriting legend Kris Kristofferson at South By Southwest in 2004, Biram took the stage and announced, “They said that was a hard act to follow. ... I’m a hard act to follow (expletive).”
A year before, he had been in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer and left the hospital after just one month to give a still-talked-about show at Austin’s Continental Club with an IV still hooked in.
In May, Biram released his third full-length on Chicago’s Bloodshot label. With a title inspired by a youthful psychedelic experience and a random CB transmission, Something’s Wrong/Lost Forever was recorded at Biram’s home studio with some contributions from the band the Black Diamond Heavies. The record features nine original songs that fit in nicely beside a handful of covers from Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly.
“With all my records, I just try to capture whatever musically I’m doing at the time and capture it as simply as possibly,” says Biram, who admits Something’s Wrong is more eclectic than past efforts because of his struggles with mood-altering medication. “I couldn’t write very well. The songs weren’t coming to me very easily. So the record itself came out more like a smorgasbord. But it’s all me.”
With influences from punk to country to bluegrass and beyond, Scott H. Biram decided to perform his own music his own way as a one-man band.