Scars and Bars
"I'm made out of metal now," says 31-year-old hillbilly bluesman Scott H. Biram. "I got metal rods and plates and screws all in me. I always go through the rigmarole at the airport. I tell 'em I'm bionic. In fact, a paper in Lafayette called me 'the bionic redneck.' "
Headed for Seattle by van, the road-weary Austinite sounds chipper for a guy who, two years ago on a stretch of Highway 123 near San Antonio, went head-to-head with an 18-wheeler at 75 miles per hour.
"I knocked the whole front axle off the semi, and it drove over the top of me," Biram recalls. "The driver's-side-door window went around me, and I was encased in scrap metal. I remember the trooper asking me my parents' phone number, and some brown upholstery on the door of the helicopter, but that's about it. The next thing, I woke up and had tubes in my mouth and my chest, and pins sticking out everywhere."
Six weeks and 13 surgeries later, Biram rolled into Austin's Continental Club in a wheelchair, with two broken legs and more than a foot of his lower intestine missing. He played a 45-minute set, even though his busted strumming arm, held together by a plate with ten screws, was attached to an IV. Against his doctor's advice, Biram tested out his shattered left foot, which, in the style of the late John Lee Hooker, he'd grown accustomed to using as a metronome.
"As soon as I got up there, my foot just started stompin' by itself," Biram recalls. "I couldn't stop it."
Fully recovered, Biram abuses himself at will nowadays, running his stomp board through a bass cabinet and his '59 Gibson hollow-body through a reverb unit, and screaming into a harmonica pickup to make his vocals good and muddy. With a raw immediacy that recalls Hasil Adkins and Bob Log III, Biram specializes in a twisted hybrid of gutbucket, hillbilly and godless metal. He'll praise the virtues of moonshine and titty bars one minute, then tongue-lash city slickers and hippies the next.
"People like to be insulted, so that's what I do," Biram explains. "It's my alternate personality. You don't have to listen to it. You can plug your ears. I'm not gonna fight people. The only time I get angry is when people try to tell me how I should live my life.
"I do get tired of goin' places where people immediately think Texas is a bad place 'cause of Bush," Biram continues. "There's a bunch of shit-talkers in Oregon. They're startin' to piss me off. All my friends that I know aren't into that shit. There's a lot of open-minded people in Texas, especially in the Austin area."
The Lone Star son of a computer programmer and a psychiatric-hospital worker, Biram grew up on the edge of the Balcones fault line in San Marcos, surrounded by cotton and maize farms.
"I had some chickens out there, and they were pretty inspiring to me," Biram says, somewhat echoing the famously poultry-obsessed Adkins. "I think it all started with a song that Big Joe Williams does: 'Someday Baby.' He 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.' And I kind of latched on to that for a while. It's kind of a metaphor for ex-girlfriends."
Long before Biram fixated on duplicitous chickens, he dabbled in punk rock, playing in a Misfits cover band called the Happy Trees (a nod to late PBS painter Bob Ross). After picking up his great-grandfather's banjo, Biram parlayed his speed-metal chops into the rootsier Saltpeter Boys, followed by a stint with Bluegrass Driveby. He released three solo albums on his own KnuckleSandwich imprint -- 2000's This Is Kingsbury?; 2002's Preachin' and Hollerin', which featured "Truck Driver," a tune later covered by Hank Williams III; and 2003's Lo-fi Mojo -- before dropping off an unsolicited demo at Chicago-based Bloodshot Records, which quickly added him to its roster.
Full of gospel numbers, murder ballads and plenty of sloppy, distorted solos, Biram's Bloodshot debut, The Dirty Old One Man Band, captures his depression-era blues in all its ragged glory. In addition to his own dark, metal-infused originals, the angry twanger adds yodels and blinding fretwork to traditionals like "Muleskinner Blues." Biram even boosts the riff from "Tequila" for his own equally intoxicating "Whiskey."
"I was just thinkin' earlier today, I'm sorry I ever wrote that song 'Whiskey,' " Biram confesses. "Every time I play it, I end up with five shots in front of me by the time I'm done. They think I'm a hard-core whiskey drinker; they're turning me into one."
Pickled liver aside, Biram earned some extra pocket change by endorsing Jack Daniel's Hard Cola -- along with Rudy's Barbecue, a chain of Texas eateries. Featured in Hell on Wheels, an upcoming A&E documentary about the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls league, Biram has done well enough with his music and side projects to buy a little house in Austin, complete with a recording studio.
"I got this whole Jesus room, too," Biram says, beaming. "The whole Virgin Mary blanket on the bed, and the Last Supper and the big metal cross on the wall. I tell people if they come over, 'You can stay in the Jesus room, but no fuckin'!' "
Away from the comforts of home, Biram spent eight months of the past year crisscrossing America's super-slabs, playing small clubs and swapping whoppers with rig jockeys under one of several radio handles: Motor Mouth, Snowcone Man, Horny Toad or Holy Ghost.
"I take a CB on tour," Biram says. "I just like talkin' on there and listenin' to all the weird, perverted shit. I feel like I got this kinship with the truck drivers, 'cause we kinda do the same job. We gotta drive to the next town. With them, though, they have somebody unload all that shit for 'em. But we're still out there on the road, seein' the same sights and gettin' things done."
Fortunately, Biram splits time behind the wheel with a buddy.
"It's hard for me to sleep when somebody else is driving anymore," he admits. "I get these weird flashbacks, too, like sensations of being shaken up and trapped, but it's a really nice, peaceful day outside -- like it was that day."
Even though he faces knee-replacement surgery at some point, Biram values all the good things that have come with being reduced to road pizza two years ago.
"It got some people's attention and made my story a little better," he says. "And it made me a lot less worried about the little things. I'm thankful every day for being alive and being in this world. Even the bad stuff I appreciate."
Not ready to hang a Saint Christopher medal from the rearview anytime soon -- "No, I have a little happy face that says 'Your anger makes me happy,' " Biram reveals, laughing -- the bionic redneck does intend to add an inspirational reminder to his growing collection of bodily scars.
"I got a tattoo on my inner forearm," he says. "I'm getting some praying hands underneath it next week. It's gonna say, 'Hit the Road and Say Your Prayers.' "
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