Though a solo performer, Scott H. Biram doesn’t sit on a stool and gently strum his acoustic guitar like one might expect from a singer/songwriter. With distortion always within arm’s reach, he plays electric guitar and stomps beats out on a board while he sings his ragged Roots rave-ups and soulful ballads in concert.
Biram’s juiced-up setup is less about the songs themselves — which are often recorded with expanded, more traditional instrumentation — and more about his desire to not be pigeonholed. The electric guitar and stomp-board enable Biram — aka The Dirty Old One Man Band — to play in the kind of venues and with the types of acts that he desires.
“It’s helped me to stay in the Rock clubs and play with bands and not get stuck in coffee shops,” Biram says of his rambunctious solo approach. “I don’t even drink coffee. I hate the word singer/songwriter. The minute somebody says that I think of somebody playing a cheap guitar with a bad pickup at open mic night.
“I don’t ever refer to myself as a singer/songwriter,” he continues. “I’m proud of my songwriting and the songs come easily. I’m proud I can pull these random lines and images out of my head, but singer/songwriter — no. I don’t want to be thought of as something lame.”
Lame isn’t a word that will ever be used to describe The Bad Testament, Biram’s 10th album, which was released earlier this year on Bloodshot Records, the pioneering label that has been spotlighting the edges of Americana music for more than 20 years. The latest from the Austin, Texas-based performer is filled with dark songs of loneliness and escape, delivered with a mix of melancholy and aggression.
“It fits in there pretty good with the rest of my records,” Biram says of The Bad Testament. “Definitely all my records have some darkness on there, and there’s some joy in there. There’s always a battle between heaven and hell on my records. With this one, I was kind of aware of going back to my first Bloodshot record (2005’s The Dirty Old One Man Band). It was kind of gritty and rough. I wanted to go back to that kind of feel. It has some pretty songs on it, but I sort of dumbed-down the production a little bit to get it rough.”
Bloodshot is a perfect fit for Biram’s sound, which he calls “the bastard child of Punk, Blues, Country, Hillbilly, Bluegrass, Chain Gang, Metal and Classic Rock.” He was signed to the label based on an unsolicited demo (a rarity for Bloodshot) in 2004, not long after an incident that would have ended the career (or worse) of a lesser man. Biram was severely injured in a head-on collision with an 18-wheel semi-truck 14 years ago. Despite two broken legs, a broken arm and a broken foot, Biram famously was back on stage a month later, IV still in his arm.
Even though he is in constant pain as a result of the injuries, he says the accident no longer plays much of a role in his songwriting.
“It’s getting pretty far in the past now,” he says of the crash. “I would say it’s more my emotions and childhood that influence my songwriting. I grew up out in the country and loved running up and down the riverbank and the little town. (The) places my mind goes to when I’m writing songs — back in the country, being on the road, the endless highway and heartbreak and revenge.”
Biram also writes lots of songs about drinking. His catalog includes “Whiskey,” “Only Whiskey,” “Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue,” “Alcohol Blues” and “Red Wine,” a Honky Tonk ballad on the new album that indulges more than just a glass of burgundy.
“We managed to get red wine, whiskey, cold beer and a martini in there,” Biram says of the tune. “That’s a lot of alcohol.”
As with past albums, the songs on The Bad Testament had to be reworked to go from studio to stage. His recordings often have multiple parts played on multiple instruments, leaving Biram to rearrange them for just guitar, vocals and a stomping foot.
“I always have to edit the songs for the stage,” he says. “I’ve got to figure out how to keep a rhythm and do the solo. Sometimes it’s a year and a half, relearning the solo I did in the studio. The rest of it, I’ve been doing it long enough (that) it’s no big deal to stomp my foot and play at the same time. They say I’m a one-man band, but I say I’m just a guy with too many speakers.”
Once the songs have been — to use his term — edited, Biram puts them in a set list that stays more or less the same through each tour. The promotional cycle for The Bad Testament began almost immediately following its February release, keeping Biram solidly on the road ever since.
“I’m pretty much booked up through (November),” he says. “Record release years are pretty busy for me. I have to promote the record and try to cash in on it and pay some debt down. Then after a year or so, I can get to working on the next record. I need to get to work now. I’ve got a bunch of songs and parts of songs I recorded on my phone that I need to finish so I don’t forget them.”
As we talk on the phone (another part of the “promotional cycle”) during a break between tour legs, Biram isn’t crafting new songs or going over half-finished ideas. More immediate matters have his attention.
“I’ve got all five of my guitars out right now, changing the strings for tour,” Biram says. “I used to be such an OCD control freak I’d change the strings on my main guitar every night. Now, with so many guitars, I’ll do a string change once or twice on tour. I don’t like changing strings anymore. I’ve probably changed strings 10,000 times.”
SCOTT H. BIRAM plays Friday at the Southgate House Revival. Tickets/more info: southgatehouse.com.