Deep in a chewing tobacco spit-encrusted, whiskey-scented shack in the swamp, there's a broke down old white dude sweating over an equally weathered acoustic guitar. He has the guttural growl of a bullfrog. He sings dirty blues with the conviction of a mother superior, before wailing out a half century-old bluegrass hymn about "getting right" and giving up the sinning. The word "gristled" was conceived to define this guy.
Well, not exactly.
The truth is, Scott H. Biram's music might lead you to conjure such an image, listening to songs with titles like "18 Wheeler Fever" and "Still Drunk, Still Crazy, Still Blue." He plays bluegrass and blues, mostly fast and mean. The sound quality of his recordings is best described as raw, at times abrasive. He sings with a hard Texas accent—he's from the Hill Country near Austin—and it's tough to tell sometimes if Biram's literally amped-up acoustic music ("I tour [solo] with more equipment than a four-piece band," he says) is a joke or not. Listeners could be forgiven for wondering: Is this guy honoring traditional music, or mocking it?
Biram sides squarely with the former. He says that most of the time, audiences are already familiar with him. Though not always.
"It's not like Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival," Biram jokes, referring to the infamous 1965 show where Dylan went electric. "Although I did have a guy in France one time say, 'Zis is not de blues!'"
He adds, "I tell audiences, 'I hope you're having a good time tonight, because I already have your money!'"
While he projects a persona of a cheap beer-guzzling trash talker on albums such as Dirty Old One-Man Band, Biram in conversation is soft spoken, literate and self-reflective. His accent is less perceptible. He speaks as easily about his education (he studied art at Southwest Texas State University) as he does about his love of Steely Dan and his 1956 Gibson hollow-body electric guitar. Biram is, in other words, the kind of dirty old one-man band you could take home to meet mama.
Biram's off-kilter stage persona developed over years of trying to merge his diverse musical interests. The first concert he remembers was in the late 1970s or early '80s, seeing legendary folk singers Doc and Merle Watson. A few years later came his first rock concert—David Lee Roth and Poison. Move forward a couple years, and Biram became obsessed with iconic punk groups like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys.
He held tight to those influences, playing in punk and bluegrass bands simultaneously after college, while working kitchen gigs in restaurants (he's been a full-time musician since 2001). When Biram's bands split up, he decided to start performing as a solo act. Problem was, Biram was not the kind of performer to sit with an acoustic guitar and serenade the clientele.
"If I was just sitting there with a guitar," he says, "that's not much of a show. I missed playing in rock clubs and I hated playing in coffee shops. So I realized I needed to step this up. I started stomping on the floor at these places with wood floors, and then I started stomping on the bottom of the mic stand and turned the bass up high on my voice so the bass expanded... I had this dream of having a wall of amps behind me and making myself a sort of 'presence.'"
That presence connected with audiences. Biram worked up his stage show to eventually include a battery of amplifiers. This alone—to say nothing of Biram's skills as a singer and songwriter—put him in a rarefied group of performers. He may be the only one of his kind.
"I like old hard rock and I wanted it to be a hard rock show," Biram says. "People are getting their money's worth more. It's a bigger production playing in a club... Unfortunately, that's how it seems to work."
Another benefit of Biram's mode of performing: He makes better money. Club gigs pay better than coffee shop performances, and Biram, who was used to splitting the profits of ticket sales with bandmates, found he could make similar club gigs pay as a solo artist.
Since 2000, Biram has consistently been releasing albums every year or two, initially by himself and, since 2005, on independent label Bloodshot (home to similar artists Devil in a Woodpile and Split Lip Rayfield). In 2002 came Preachin' and Hollerin'. In 2003, after nearly dying in a head-on collision with an 18 wheeler, he released his Rehabilitation Blues EP (with an album cover photo of Biram playing guitar in a hospital bed, naturally). His most recent album is 2009's Something Wrong/Lost Forever.
Currently Biram is working on the follow-up to that one. He notes that his recording contract stipulates he must release a new album every year and a half. And, while Biram refers to music as a job, he also relishes the experience of finishing a recording, seeing what folks think, and, he says, "When the records start selling, I know I'll be fine on funds for a while."
Scott H. Biram plays the Palace Wednesday, March 2, at 9 PM with Ralph White and Dodgy Mountain Men. $10.