Talking with Scott H. Biram begins and ends with Lightnin’ Hopkins. On this particular afternoon the self-proclaimed “Dirty Old One Man Band” is changing strings on five guitars and working on a song by the late Texas bluesman.
“I’ve been playing Lightnin’ Hopkins stuff for years. It’s time for another one,” said Biram, who performs today at the Shaskeen in Manchester on a double bill with The Goddamn Gallows, a band that shares Biram’s penchant for the kind of genre-mashing that mixes blues with punk, country, bluegrass and metal.
Biram’s latest album, “The Bad Testament,” offers as good a place as any to sample his gritty approach and sharp-edged songwriting. The 2017 Bloodshot Records release features electric-guitar based outlaw country (“Set Me Free,” “Red Wine”), punky rave-ups (“TrainWrecker”), gospel (“True Religion”) and heart-worn Americana (“Still Around,” “Righteous Ways”). On his recent albums, Biram has added bass, drums and keyboards on some tracks to get a full band sound. But armed with nothing but his guitar — his natural setting in concert — he packs a mean punch.
Swift Driftin,’” one of standout cuts from “The Bad Testament,” features Biram strumming an acoustic guitar and getting increasingly ornery with an unnamed enemy.
“I come from a background of a lot of different kinds of music, playing punk and metal in high school and college, but growing up on the old blues and bluegrass and just playing classic rock and all that,” Biram said from his Austin home. “So I have a lot of influence from Bill Monroe, Doc Watson. But then I also have influence from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins. And then we’ll go over to country music and do some Merle Haggard-style stuff. It’s just kind of all over the place.”
Biram has been busy recording new material, which means trying to shut off the songwriting spigot so he can focus on finishing the album. That can be hard when songs come to you uninvited.
“Some of my biggest influences are crazy dreams that I have. Sometimes I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning for just a second with just a piece of a phrase or something I heard in my dream, and I just write it down real fast, maybe just that little line, maybe a whole song. When I start to write a song, it just kind of rolls out of my brain onto the paper or the screen or whatever,” he said.
The trick is to know when to apply the brakes.
“I’ve really had to work in the last few years to stop myself from writing too many lyrics to songs because I keep ending up with these five-minute songs. And you know you don’t get a lot of radio play with five-minute songs. Not that the name of the game is to get on the radio. ... It’s therapy for me. But then there’s the whole ‘have to pay bills’ thing.”
Biram draws from the long tradition of blues and country for lyrical themes. Hard living. Hard loving. Tough luck.
“Most of my songwriting comes from heartache kind of stuff or being on the road, a traveling kind of song. And then the old running up and down the river because I grew up in a little tiny town, and that’s mostly what we did was run up and down the river and swing off of rope swings,” he said.
While Biram has been working as a professional musician for more than 20 years, he still aims to improve his record production skills and guitar-playing prowess. With “The Bad Testament,” Biram said he aimed to recapture some of the grit of his 2005 Bloodshot debut, “The Dirty Old One Man Band,” but he’s picked up a lot of studio finesse since then.
“I’ve been recording my own records for years, and I’ve been doing recording stuff since I was 14. I’m about to be 45 so I just continue to learn and continue to learn all that stuff,” he said. “I’m sitting in my studio right now, and I’ve got top of the line newest kind of preamps and recording formats, plug-ins, microphones and monitors and all that. I’ve always been trying to get the heavily produced lo-fi sound. Trying to get a cross between Pink Floyd and John Lee Hooker somehow.”
A couple of years ago, Biram started taking guitar lessons online. The self-taught musician knows he’s missed some things.
“Recently I’ve been forcing myself to do things that I used to think was not possible like picking with a flat pick and finger-picking at the same time, and using all my fingers at the same time as using a pick. It used to be something I didn’t think I could do. Now it’s starting to come. I realized that if you do something over and over again for a week, it starts to get easier. And once you get right through that week you really get the confidence that you need to make it happen.”
Biram recently bought a new van. His traveling music right now includes a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins.
“I’ve been trying to bring back Lightnin’ Hopkins to the set list and Muddy and John Lee Hooker,” he said.
* * *
Scott H. Biram performs at 8 p.m. today at The Shaskeen, 909 Elm St., Manchester, 625-0246. Tickets are $20 and are available at brownpapertickets.com.