Scott H. Biram 2024
Photo: Scott H. Biram

Straight from No Man’s Land: A Conversation with Texas Bluesman Scott H. Biram

To encounter Scott H. Biram live-and-in-person, you’d figure Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister had kin in Caldwell County, a distant cousin steeped in Willie Dixon and Lightnin Hopkins.

The One & Only Scott H. Biram
Scott H. Biram
29 March 2024

Scott H. Biram originally hails from a Texas town sandwiched between a pig farm and an oilfield, so “depending on which way the wind blew, the town smelled like pig shit or oil,” he says. Suffice it to say that Biram’s as authentic as they come: a fire and brimstone Texas bluesman with a punk aesthetic. Or, as Biram’s people explain, “The Clash did Combat Rock; Biram traffics in Combat Blues.” His songwriting channels dark and dirty electric Blues, outlaw country, chain gang, garage rock, hardcore, lo-fi gospel, death metal-growling, preaching, hollering, foot-stomping, and all-around greasiness. To encounter Biram live and in person, you’d figure Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister had kin in Caldwell County, a distant cousin steeped in Willie Dixon and Lightnin Hopkins with a fair amount of Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, and Gibby Haynes. 

Across the 1990s, playing in two bluegrass bands and a punk outfit called the Thangs, Biram wasn’t necessarily thinking in terms of going it alone. “Around 1994,” he says, “I started doing solo acoustic shows, trying things out: old folk, blues, music the bands weren’t playing. But when the last band broke up in 2001, I wanted to keep touring. I did a straight-up acoustic singer-songwriter tour and quickly realized that I didn’t want to play only in coffee shops. I wanted to play in rock clubs, but that meant competing with full bands”. In turn, Biram developed the notorious “dirty old one-man band” persona— the one-person show, channeling the energy of a three-piece band. After releasing three records independently, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records signed him in 2005. 

Holding fast to punk’s do-it-yourself ethic, Biram plays every instrument on his albums, records in his home studio, runs his own merch table, drives the van, and feeds the chickens. A self-described “road dog”, he plays roughly 150 shows a year. In the first week of April alone, the itinerary calls for six shows involving a 14-hour drive from Mill Valley, California, to Seattle, then Portland, Yakima, Washington, on his 50th birthday, Boise, and Salt Lake City, followed by a power outage in Denver (we’re talking a five-block radius) leading to a cancellation, diverting him to Davenport, Iowa, the latter entailing a 19-hour trip.

Somewhere in the thick of it all, we speak by phone, with Biram en route to Des Moines, “straight down Old 35”. We discuss old guitars, people who’ve never heard of Leadbelly or John Lee Hooker (“Much less Mance Lipscomb or Little Walter”, he adds), and his newest record, The One & Only Scott H. Biram, his ninth with Bloodshot Records and his first since 2020’s Fever Dreams

Besides channeling his inner Billy Gibbons (his favorite living guitarist) on “No Man’s Land”, the record’s opener, the song offers a four-minute Texas geography lesson in Dropped D tuning. Born in 1974, Scott H. Biram lived ten years in Prairie Lea, then moved to San Marcos, where a popular bumper sticker of the time read, “Oil Field Trash and Proud of It!” 

“We had the upper and lower bridges on the San Marcos River,” he says. “The upper bridge— that’s where people swam and hung out. On the other side of the river, over in Guadalupe County, there was a little turnaround full of brush piles, always some car sitting there, somebody doing something, always a barrel burning, beer cans. So I had this idea in my head of a dark place, things happening in the shadows.”

The song is fleshed out in an official music video directed by San Antonio filmmaker Frank Weysos. The video alternates shots of the onstage Biram with frames of a doppelganger Biram running amok like a backwoods Lon Chaney Jr. under a full moon, covered in blood. 

“We wanted to film at that turnaround by the river, but the place wasn’t cinematographic enough,” he says. “All the [on-stage] shots with the big floor and the high ceiling, that’s the old Fentress Skating Rink built in 1917. My grandparents skated there. My Mom used to skate there; she says she skated a million miles in that place. I even went a couple of times when I was about five. As for the whole blood thing— back when I put out Bad Ingredients (2011), Shooter Jennings said he had a dream about me singing “Broke Ass” in a bathtub full of blood. So I’ve been looking for an excuse to do a song in a bathtub of blood, coming out of it like Apocalypse Now. Of course, we then realized how hard it is to move a clawfoot tub. Plus, fake blood is expensive, so we just poured it over my head.”  

As we’ve come to expect on a Scott H. Biram album, he shifts gears from foot stompers to gospel-flavored tunes to a jukebox-country number like “Inside a Bar”. “I was aiming for that old Waylon phase sound,” he says. “But the song took on a Johnny Lee style, like an Urban Cowboy song—a simple structure— a one-four-five thing, no bridge. I pictured an empty bar on a Monday night, all the disco lights going, but nobody there, the pitiful, lonesome, reeling thing. The song came out the way I wanted. The video matches what I had in my head.” 

“While you’re wearing my dad’s jogging suit from 1978,” I tell him. “Ha! That’s right. The story here is everybody in the bar— you have the regulars, five people— while I play the guy coming off the golf course for happy hour, but he’s still hanging around at 2:00am.” 

As it turns out, the dancers in the video are friends. “Weeks earlier, I played in San Antonio, and these folks invited me to a bar afterward,” he adds, “but didn’t mention it was goth night— so we were greeted at the door by a friend wearing black and white makeup. That’s how we ended up with the skull-faced guy in a Country video. That couple went from the goth bar to the dive bar and still had their makeup on.” 

Scott H. Biram lives by the adage that “a record should actually be ‘a record’ of where I was in life at that time, in terms of the musical journey”, and that includes covers that find their way onto his albums, such as his renditions of Leadbelly’s “Easy Rider” (1944) and Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Has No Mercy” (1960). “On the records, it’s usually a matter of ‘Here’s the songs I’ve been drawn to playing recently,” he explains. “Of course, I’d tried to play “Death Has No Mercy” in the past but had it wrong. Normally, on a one-four-five progression, you’d play E, A, B, E — but on the second part, the song’s in a minor key, and it’s uncommon to have the same notes going back and forth between major and minor in the same song, which really jumped out at me. So I took the time to learn it, pulled out my classical guitar and old reel-to-reel recorder at three o’clock in the morning, kept the volume down because my wife was asleep, and played without a pick but not finger-picking. The recording is sloppy, but if you listen to Rev. Gary Davis’ recordings, he’s pretty sloppy too”.

Two weeks later, Biram arrives in Atlanta, performing at a quaint venue called “Vinyl” on Peachtree Street, a building where, back in the early 1990s, Ted Turner’s TV station filmed World Championship Wrestling (which somehow feels relevant). The multigenerational Atlanta audience includes headbangers, lovers of gunfighter ballads, and blues enthusiasts who probably own Chess Records’ pressings of Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters. There are plenty of trucker hats, handlebar mustaches, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. One gentleman appears as though straight from a factory line, wearing khaki-colored Dickies coveralls. The fellow to his left could pass for J. Mascis’ twin brother. 

The demographics here tell you why Biram has resisted making albums confined to one style of music. “I’ve helped quite a few, over the years, find other kinds of music they never thought they’d listen to— the metalhead who never listened to country, the bluegrass guy who never listened to hard rock— because I’m playing various genres all in one sitting,” he says. “I’ve always been proud of that.” 

When Scott H. Biram takes the stage (emphasis on “takes”), he wears soot-black work clothes, a matching flatbill Cat Diesel hat, and a worn tobacco-colored 1959 Gibson archtop resting over his knee. Facing a bulky microphone, eyes rolled back in his head, he’s not afraid to belt it out. His onstage persona is Texas Gothic live-wire, menacing, playfully antagonistic, like a seedy character out of country noir. 

About that guitar— 20 years ago, heading out of town, on his way to Louisiana, Biram stopped at an Austin music store to buy a pack of strings. The sales manager said, “Look what we’ve got”, and there it was, the guitar Biram had long coveted, “all beat up, just like I wanted”. Keeping in mind this happened 20 years ago, he paid $650. For slide-guitar, Biram switches to a black 1960 Gibson model currently held together with gaffer tape where the binding’s coming loose. During the show, I count six guitars in the rack, including his black Gibson Explorer and a firebird red, cigar-box-shaped Gretsch Bo Diddley model, which he pulls out to play Diddley’s staple, “Who Do You Love”, segueing into a few bars of Link Wray’s “Rumble”.  

The final portion of the show feels like a hallucination as Biram reaches for a Fender Jaguar. Loosening the strings to Napalm Death-tuning, he creates an endless noise loop by way of one of his stomp boxes and issues an altar call. He paces the stage, east-west, like a country evangelist of the First United Church of Slayer, baptizing his flock, anointing and pressing his hand against our foreheads in the manner of a tent show healer. Your intrepid author needed this done twice.

Does Rev. Scott H. Biram view himself as an evangelist for the blues tradition? After all, he’s preserving a kind of music that many of us consider culturally essential. 

“In a way, yes. I do feel a bit like a teacher,” he says. “I hear from people asking for names of obscure blues artists they’ve never heard of. And I’m always glad to let them know— because as much as I love B.B. King, a lot of ‘blues’ artists these days sound like overpolished B.B. King-style— clean, perfectly played. I like the sloppiness, those old Mance Lipscomb records where he played slide with his pocket knife, and you can hear this rattling sound, that pocket knife banging against the neck of the guitar. Those kinds of things— that’s what talks to me”.  

I need to ask one more thing: “You’ve never aimed for rock operas as far as your albums go. But across your music, you say a great deal about survival. Does it sound far-fetched to say—something that binds this new album together, maybe all of your work, is the notion of living in an unforgiving land?” 

“I look into my heart, liver, my nether region— looking for that human struggle,” he says. “Woody Guthrie records were always about struggle. I’m proud to tap into that down-to-earth feeling. People get where I’m coming from.” 

Then Scott H. adds that “a song has to touch someone’s soul, somehow. That’s a songwriter’s responsibility.”