Scott H. Biram Sets Aside the Whiskey for “Red Wine”
The Austin-based one-man band channels George Jones to create a honky-tonk ballad that’s the perfect soundtrack for drowning your woes in the company of your demons.
Scott H. Biram may have the hardest working right hand in country music. As you watch his live set, it feels as if he’s constantly fighting a compulsion to work his strumming hand faster and faster, his foot stomping harder as if propelled by the same impulse. He may double- or triple-time the rhythm when he takes on traditional folk songs, picking out licks at a pace that wouldn’t sound out of place in the punk or bluegrass acts he used to front. But just as you calibrate yourself to the Black Flag speed, Biram shifts gears and launches into one of his original tunes, which blend timeless country music with blues that are as authentic and low-down as Lightnin’ Hopkins.
When I saw him play this January at Cheatham Street Warehouse, the ramshackle honky-tonk in San Marcos that practically shares a wall with the railroad tracks, there was plenty of love for the hometown boy—especially from a couple of gals in frayed Daisy Dukes holding Budweisers aloft, shaking their tattooed thighs to Biram’s driving rhythms as if they were trying to run a trucker off the road. Yielding only a vintage acoustic Gibson, Biram may be a one-man band, but he’s as captivating (and loud) as any five-piece combo out there.
Also on display at Cheatham was Biram’s profound love of gospel music. At times the atmosphere felt less like a dive bar and more like an evangelical tent revival, although, admittedly, a demented one. (It was not uncommon to hear “Hallelujah” immediately followed by a phrase meaning “one who knows his mother in the biblical sense.”) This shouldn’t surprise those familiar with Biram’s discography. He often threads elements of gospel music and religious themes throughout his songs. But religious motifs have never been quite as prominently in the foreground as they are on The Bad Testament, Biram’s latest album that careens sonically from the anarchic punk of GG Allin (“Swift Driftin'”) to the hymnal sounds of a Southern church choir (“True Religion”). As with any Biram outing, there’s as much talk about worldly pleasures as there is salvation, though there are some departures. For instance, this record finds Biram singing the praises of “Red Wine” in lieu of his well-documented appreciation of whiskey.
“I had George Jones stuck in my head around the time I wrote it,” Biram explained of the song’s origin. “I was thinking of ‘Still Doin’ Time,’ and I had this picture in my head of a honky-tonk band on the stage in a dark bar. When I did the harmony vocals, I could see the guitar player leaning into the mic to sing those harmonies. I could kind of see the song.” Biram let loose one of his good humored cackles. “And I do drink a lot of red wine.” Though he doesn’t quite go full-on Possum, Biram’s melancholy tune, anchored by deceptively simple couplets (“Takes a strong man for your kind of loving / It took a light breeze just to blow you away”), perfectly echoes the sad-swaying yet defiant ethos of Jones’s classic barroom lament. Songs like this one ensure Biram’s place at the table among country’s best songsmiths—despite his fondness for heavy metal distortion. It’s his willingness to mix the two that puts Biram on a level all his own.
I caught up with Biram while he worked in the garden alongside his chickens at his home in southwest Austin. He was getting the soil ready “for somebody else to take care of” while he’s on tour over the next few months. With his album finished since August but not out until February 24 (although it is available for preorder), he was on the tail end of the longest touring hiatus he’s had in two decades. A bona-fide road warrior, Biram was starting to feel a little restless and was more than ready to hit the asphalt. But in the meantime, there were okra, jalapeños, and cherry tomatoes that needed to be sowed.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Christian Wallace: You started playing music in a punk band. You’ve been in two different bluegrass acts. Now you’re a one-man band that blends country and the blues with a twist of metal. If you had to say what your predominant medium is these days, what would it be?
Scott H. Biram: I would say the blues. Roots blues: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb. Acoustic blues, porch blues, or, as I like to say, “Depression-era metal.”
CW: You’re a white dude originally from San Marcos, what was it about the blues that hooked you?
SB: My dad had the soundtrack to the movie Leadbelly. It was filmed in Fentress, where I lived when I was a baby. My dad had the soundtrack on vinyl, so I heard that a lot when I was a kid. The first record I remember seeing my dad buy at the record store was a Lightnin’ Hopkins album. That really resonated with me. Once I started playing acoustic guitar around the house all the time, Doc Watson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, any kind of acoustic folk, old-school music was what I wanted to hear. I heard all that music when I was a kid, and then I got into punk rock and rock ‘n’ roll in my teenage years. Then I began to piece together: “Oh, all that rock music came from the blues and country music.” I guess that’s how it all turned into one big smorgasbord.
CW: I was at the gig you played at Cheatham Street recently. I was struck by your Howlin’ Wolf impersonation.
SB: Yeah, people sometimes mention that I have an interesting way of voicing things, because I do sing in several different voices. I think some of that might come from me being a little entertainer as a kid—trying to do impersonations and everything. I was one of those kids who’d run into the living room when my parents were having people over, and I’d have a cowboy hat and a ukulele and pretend I was playing a concert.
CW: What’s the biggest advantage of being a one-man band, and what are the drawbacks?
SB: There’s definitely a lot of both. The good part is complete creative freedom. I don’t have to argue with my band members about which direction we’re going. I don’t have to get practices together. I don’t have to lose a bass player right at the last second before we go on tour and have to throw another band together. That’s really nice. I can be in the middle of a song, bust into another one, go back to the other song, and nobody’s going to complain because there’s nobody else in the band. And also not having to split the money: it’s made it a lot more practical for me to do this as a career. But the bad part is not getting to share those moments onstage with one another. I generally look at my sound guy for eye contact for some appreciation, so later on I can be like, “Did you hear that one thing I did, man?!” I’m kind of a control freak, which is probably why I’m a one-man band. I’m an only child, which is probably why I’m a control freak. That probably has a little something to do with why I record my own records. I think I’ve only done one record in someone else’s studio, and half of that I rerecorded in mine.
CW: I was going to ask you about that. In addition to being a one-man band, you’re also a one-man sound engineer and record producer when you make an album.
SB: Yeah, for the most part. I have some friends that help with things. I have a friend that’s a recording instructor at Austin Community College. I bother him with text messages and calls, asking him questions. I take advice from other people, some criticism. I probably make my girlfriend crazy ’cause when she gets off work, I’m like, “Listen to this!” And it’s the same song I’ve made her listen to sixteen days in a row. It keeps that pressure off me when I’m recording myself. When I’m in someone else’s studio, I can always feel that clock on my shoulder. I think my playing suffers. I’d rather lock myself in my studio at my house in my boxer shorts and start growing a beard. Sometimes when my girlfriend leaves for work I’ll be in the studio tinkering with something and when she comes home eight hours later I’m still in there in my boxer-shorts—I’ll have had like one drink of water all day, haven’t eaten.
CW: You were in a horrific crash in 2003. Now that you’re over a decade out from the accident, can you see that it’s had an impact on the way you work as an artist? Have there been any long-term physical ramifications? [Rehabilitation Blues, Biram’s first EP after the wreck, features a picture of Biram laying in his hospital bed with a guitar on the front, and is the closest a country artist has ever come to recreating the badass cover of We Can’t Be Stopped, the 1991 album from Houston gangsta rappers the Geto Boys.]
SB: Right after it happened it affected me quite a bit. I had just started to pick up some steam before the wreck, gain a little bit of notoriety. I was excited. When I woke up in the hospital, I had tubes stuck down my throat, and my dad asked, “Do you know why you’re here?” I shook my head. He said, “You got hit by an 18-wheeler.” I made the motion like an 18-wheeler honking its horn and flipped the bird. Then I started trying to spell the word “tour” with my fingers, so they could tell me if I could still go on tour or not. That was the first thing I was worried about. I was still bedridden when the doctors told me what month I’d be able to walk again, so I started booking a tour from the bed for the month after I was going to be able to walk again. It definitely gave me some perseverance. Now that time’s passed, I don’t think about it so much anymore, but I have some PTSD issues. I’ve got metal rods in both of my legs and one of my arms. They cut a bunch of my insides out, too. That’s given me some digestive problems. I wouldn’t do it again, but it’s helped create a legendary story for me, which, you know, if you’re going to be in show business, is a good thing to have on your résumé.
CW: It’s kind of ironic that you had and have written so much about truckers and 18-wheelers and one of those big rigs almost claimed your life.
SB: When I was talking to my surgeon, he asked, “What are some of the songs you’ve written?” I said, “Well, I wrote this song called ‘Truck Driver.’” Then I told him, “I think from now on I’m going to write songs about sitting on the beach.” I feel a bit of camaraderie with truckers because I’m on the road all the time. Seeing that highway in front of me, that open road—that’s what calms my heart and my soul. It’s not the same as it used to be now that I’ve been doing it full-time for fifteen years now, but I still feel like I’ve gotta be moving. If I weren’t a musician, I’d probably be some kind of delivery driver.
CW: You mentioned the “soul.” Religious themes are fairly pervasive throughout your catalog. Your new album is called The Bad Testament and it’s full of religious allusion, and there are several straight-up gospel tracks. Are you religious? And what is it about gospel music that gets your goat?
SB: I don’t want to be cliché and say, “Well, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” but I mean that’s how it is. I don’t go to church. I pretty much pray every day, but it’s a private thing to me. It’s a kind of meditation to align my energy towards good fortune and confess my own wrongdoing to … something. But I’m not much of an organized religion person. I went to church some when I was a kid—grew up in a Baptist family. But I do love gospel music. My first taste of gospel outside of church hymns was when the choir from Sweet Canaan Baptist Ministries visited my elementary school in Prairie Lea. That was the first time I had seen a black gospel choir sing. I was impressed. It sounded awesome, and it’s stuck with me my entire life. Gospel lifts the soul. It puts me in a good place.
CW: When I’ve seen you play live over the years, before you cover a song you usually give a little bit of background about the artist and where the song came from. Do you consider yourself to have a role in preserving old-time music and keeping the history of the blues alive?
SB: I try to make that something that I’m doing. Part of why I kind of ramble before and maybe in the middle of songs is Lead Belly influenced—he sometimes kind of hobbled little stories in before he’d go into the chorus. I always liked that. I do that partly because I just like to; it’s fun. But also I’ve found a lot of pride in myself knowing that I’m delivering people old-time music. I don’t necessarily play it right, and I don’t play exactly the way that it was originally performed, but I do feel like I’m passing something down. I’ve always tried to steer away from that really white-washed, overly-planned-out blues. I never wanted to sound like some kid who took a bunch of guitar lessons and learned a bunch of Stevie Ray Vaughn licks. I mean I love Stevie Ray and everything, but I’m more interested in the rural blues and the places it came from. I’ve studied the blues and read biographies of blues artists, as well as country and bluegrass musicians. I like to have a decent amount of knowledge about songs or genres that I’m going to cover, because I don’t like things to be shallow.
CW: George Jones was the inspiration for your song “Red Wine,” but I feel like whenever I’ve listened to your songs like that one or “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue,” I get a sort of Hank Williams vibe when it comes to the lyrics. Does that make sense at all?
SB: Yeah, a little. Hank wasn’t really a big influence on me. I respect Hank Williams, but it’s a little too depressing for me sometimes. And then I’m gonna say this, which is completely not going to make any sense, but Townes Van Zandt was a big influence on me in the late nineties and, of course, is still a big influence on me. I listened to so much of Townes. I respect his songwriting so much, and I think it comes from kind of the same place that I drag my stuff out of: my dark soul and my uplifted soul. I like to say that a lot of my lyrics are just an illustration of suffering the human condition. I’ve always had a little problem with depression, so there’s always that dark side of things. But then, like we were talking about gospel earlier, there are times when you rejoice. Sometimes that’s what keep me going. You can shake your fist in the air or you can jump up and down in happiness.
CW: There are two recurring motifs that seem to come up on almost every one of your records: whiskey and chickens.
SB: I’m standing over my chickens right now. Standing next to their coop.
CW: So what’s up with chickens?
SB: I don’t know how that came about. I guess it was about the same time I started doing the one-man band thing when I was living out in the country near Kingsbury, up on this hill. I decided I was going to have some yard-run chickens, so I got some chickens. I guess being out there by myself all the time, I kind of lost my mind a little bit. I started writing about chickens all the time. There’s actually an old song, it’s either Big Joe Williams or Mississippi Fred McDowell, and there’s one line that says, “You can steal my chickens/But you sure can’t make ‘em lay/You can steal my best woman/But you sure can’t make her stay.” I think that was kind of what got me started on the chicken thing. I’ve kind of tried to stray away from it. I’ve been walking across a parking lot in Paris, France, and someone’s been like, “Scott!” [pause] “CHICKENS!” And then I made the mistake of getting a chicken leg tattoo on the outside of my arm, so I’m stuck with that. And then the whiskey. Yeah, I used to drink a lot more whiskey than I do now. I kind of switched over to silver tequila for the most part, but I definitely had my bouts with whiskey. I play blues, but I also play country music and if you’re gonna sing country, you better bring some whiskey references. I mean, I’m not gonna start singing about Starbucks any time soon.