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How to Play Guitar With a Broken Arm

Bloodshot's ornery new signing, Scott H. Biram.



I've seen Scott H. Biram start a couple of his live sets in Austin this way: "Hey, I'm Scott H. Biram and you can all kiss my ass!" He'll flip the audience the bird a few times, berate them as "city folk," and then dispense bits of sage wisdom, like this: "The only thing better than a truck stop with a titty bar is a truck stop with a whorehouse."

Or this: "Why do you think they put 'eat' in 'meat', you fucking hippie?"

Or this, about a particular truck stop in Texas: "Don't put your ears up against any holes in the walls in the stalls in the bathroom, boy. You're gonna get a dick in your ear."

Biram performs solo with only a guitar and sometimes a harmonica. Sometimes he sings in a heavy-metal growl, sometimes a hillbilly croon that would be a perfect fit for a duet with Maybelle Carter; sometimes he manages to do both at the same time. He's capable of nimble country blues licks, but just as often he'll tear off a sloppy, distorted solo. He often sings through a harmonica pickup to give his vocals a muddy sound, and for rhythm he mikes a floorboard, stomping his left foot like a frantic human metronome. Miked stomp boards are nothing new to anybody who's heard John Lee Hooker, but it's a rare sight today and Biram plays with startling intensity: hunched in a chair, his face half-covered by the bill of his trucker cap, his head bobs wildly when he sings, and his eyes roll back in his head. I once heard Biram sing a version of Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die Blues," where he altered the lyrics to include himself: "Let me go tell Jesus H. Christ you don't have to make up Scott H. Biram's dying bed." I couldn't tell if he was barking the command to Saint Peter or his rival down below.

Late last year Biram signed to Chicago-based Bloodshot Records. The label receives upwards of 60 unsolicited demos a month, but Biram is only the second act it's rescued from the slush pile. (Trailer Bride was the first.) The label's owners have never seen him play live, but on March 22 Bloodshot will rerelease Biram's fourth album, The Dirty Old One Man Band, and will put out his fifth album in the fall. "It was Motorhead and John Lee Hooker in a knife fight," Bloodshot co-owner Rob Miller says of the demo. "It speaks to the raw immediacy I've always liked about music, going back to Howlin' Wolf and the Cramps and Hank Williams and Black Flag. Besides, he kind of scares me."

Biram, 31, grew up in the hill country near Austin and began playing in punk-metal and bluegrass bands while studying at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University at San Marcos). He released his first album, This Is Kingsbury?, on his own KnuckleSandwich Records in 2000 and, not long after, started playing weekly in Austin: he'd abuse his Martin acoustic, then harangue the crowd or belt out a turn-of-the-century spiritual a cappella while changing his broken strings. His songs romanticize a hard-drinking-trucker lifestyle, which reflects his constant driving to gigs in and around Texas; he recorded "Truck Driver" and "Wreck My Car," two of his more popular originals, for his second album, Preachin' and Hollerin' (2002). Then on March 25, 2003, shortly after the release of his third album, Lo-fi Mojo, his pickup truck collided with an 18-wheeler on a stretch of Highway 123 near San Antonio.

The accident left him with two broken legs and a broken right arm; the impact of the steering wheel tore his small intestine from his colon, forcing more than a foot of it to be removed. He spent the better part of four and a half months in bed at his parents' house, but a month after the accident he made it to the Continental Club in Austin, where he played a 45-minute set, even though his broken strumming arm had a plate with ten screws in it and was attached to an IV. His doctors advised him against his usual foot stomping, but he couldn't help himself: "Once I started, it just kind of went on its own," he says.

He's weary of talking about the accident, though--"It doesn't take anyone special to get hit by an 18-wheeler," as he puts it. His fortunes have improved since then. By January 2004 Biram had recovered enough to go on a two-month tour with Hank Williams III, who'd been covering "Truck Driver" for a year before the accident.

The Dirty Old One Man Band reflects his shift from the rootsiness of his earlier albums into darker territory: he plays more heavy-metal bar chords now, and his '59 Gibson hollow-body electric guitar gives his songs a thicker, rougher sound. Four of the songs on the album are traditionals like "Muleskinner Blues," but he's prone to tinker with them. The centerpiece of the record is the gospel song "What's His Name?," which he introduces by singing "I See the Light," his own merger of gospel and murder ballad:

Down by the river, gonna hold you under
It might be baptism, might be murder
Either way you're bound to see the light

Biram was in Chicago last year on tour with Tennessee singer-songwriter Joe Buck when he decided to leave a demo CD at Bloodshot's offices. "One thing I liked was that on their Web site it says, 'Don't submit metal demo CDs to us, we don't sign metal bands,' and something like 'don't think you'll be the exception to this rule,'" he recalls. "And when I handed them my CD I told them, 'I'll be the exception to that rule.' And I was, 'cause I do play metal."

Scott H. Biram
When: Wed 3/2, 9 PM
Where: Abbey Pub, 3240 W. Grace
Price: $8 in advance, $10 at the door
Info: 773-478-4408, 866-468-3401, or

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kelly West/Austin American Statesman.

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