One in a Million
The spawn of Hasil Adkins: one-man bands
Possessed by Paul James
Among the handful of soused baseball fans, Konrad Wert looks like a younger version of Tom Waits: hat dipped low over one eye, suspenders clinging to a worn T-shirt. We sit at the Horseshoe Lounge in South Austin, where the jukebox spins Otis Redding and shuffleboard is the preferred recreational sport. He offers a story with all the Waitsian traits: God, religion, and revelation in a half-empty bar. But his story is true. The 29-year-old guitarist grew up in the swamps of Immokalee, Fla., and his family was Mennonite Amish.
"Music was church," he says. "It was four-part hymn singing; piano was secular. It was an instrument made by man, so they felt the only way to sing and praise God was with the voice. But it was a multilingual church service Creole, Spanish, and English so it sounded really crazy. And in terms of my music, there are a lot of roots."
Wert is part of a handful of local musicians who do it for themselves. In his live shows, he goes by the name Possessed by Paul James, and to hear him try to describe his music is an exercise in primality. There's grunting, growling, melody, balladry, oppression, dirt, grit, love, taxes, death. While he mainly played guitar in his teens, pop and rock music weren't allowed in the church.
"There was definitely a lot of me listening on a Walkman," Wert smiles.
He received a grant during college and lived in Northwest Africa, where he studied art and music and started seeing the world outside the church. He moved around to D.C., California, Central America, and briefly lived in Arlington, Texas, busking wherever he could. It was when he was living in a van in New Mexico and met his current girlfriend that the music started kicking in.
"She was so far away from all those aspects of the church," he says. "I started listening to punk; it was the final kick in the ass. And so music has really been a way to connect with people and have a conversation. Not to channel a political or social issue, but something greater."
He's definitely channeling something. Or someone. See, he got the stage name through an accident with the family tree, a combination of his grandfather's name (Paul) and his father's middle name (James).
"And the possessed comes ...," Wert pauses and laughs. "I would get a video camera to see what I looked like when I played at home. And when I would look back at it I would think, 'What the fuck is going on?' And when I played with bands, people would say I looked kind of crazy onstage, like, in a concerned way. But I'm just channeling something higher. A song like 'Nightmare Waltz' [from his self-titled CD], it's a love ballad, but it's the ugly beauty of it, and I connect with that, with the beauty of the ugliness. People have used the word primal, and I've started to appreciate it."
Wert's setup includes banjo, guitar, fiddle, and an old trunk he picked up from a junk collector, which he stomps on. He sings through a regular mic, but during many of his country and trad-blues type songs, his voice dips into an unintelligible growl or yelp before crawling back to a croon.
"Possessed is just ... possessed by Richie Havens, possessed by experiences," he says. "[My grandfather] Paul Wert lost his job as a chicken delivery guy when he worked for Weaver's chicken. Tyson bought him out. So he drove his Ford into a fucking freight train, and he survived. He was committed to a mental hospital, did shock therapy. Music's very feeling motivated."
Other songs like "No Windows" and "The Warden's Wife" paint a picture of dusty, small-town desperation under his plaintive lyrics.
"People say, 'Oh, it's just a white boy doing the blues,' but it's gotta be more than that, because, especially from the church perspective, if you have that on your fucking back, you're gonna have a lot of similarities with those folks. It's a universal feeling, that oppression. There's the roots blues that comes from the black community and the roots blues that stems from the poor, urban, white community. There's a huge fucking bridge there, between punk and blues."
Possessed is definitely the appropriate word for Wert's music, if not an ironic one given his upbringing.
"I'm just glad I get to throw my hat in there," he says. "You know, a Mennonite Amish kid from Florida, you have your own story to tell."
John Schooley & His One Man Band
"My whole career is based on people who like noisy, crap-sounding records."
John Schooley is having a beer at the Longbranch Inn. The cherubic guitarist has that look: like it's 1956, and all of those squares are gonna get a lesson in rocking. And yeah, he's going home with your girl. Behind his setup of guitar, harmonica, washboard, and drums, there's a Jerry Lee Lewis sneer, hair falling into his face. He recently returned from a European tour where he played in Slovenia, Serbia, Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland.
"In Europe, people remember," Schooley says. "People who had seen my previous bands would come and ask about them."
Not bad for a guy who grew up in modest Niangua, Mo. He proudly mentions their population was at one time 435.
"It was the only school district in the state to lose its accreditation because test scores were so low," says the 31-year-old. "It's very Bible Belty. Drinking is looked down upon, no one goes out and dances. It's like the town from Footloose."
No, Schooley didn't challenge the mayor to a dance-off. Instead, he picked up a guitar.
"I played guitar in high school, but there wasn't really anyone to play with. There was one other guy who played guitar, but he wanted to sound like Eddie Van Halen, and that wasn't my bag. So, I played a lot of guitar, and I'm still coasting on the amount of practice I did."
Schooley's solo twang draws from the early blues and rockabilly canon. Link Wray, Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin' Wolf, and punk were all formative influences. In his early 20s he played in the blues-punk Crypt band the Revelators and most recently did time in Austin's Hard Feelings. Yet he was always doing the one-man-band gig, starting with guitar, kick drum, and a hi-hat. Later, he added the snare drum on a stand, harmonica, and a washboard. John Schooley and His One Man Band (Voodoo Rhythm) was released earlier this year, and his friendship with European one-man band Lightning Beat-Man led to The Gospel of Primitive Rock 'n' Roll, a documentary of his label, Voodoo Rhythm. He's played with R.L. Burnside and driven the legendary Hasil Adkins halfway across the country.
"[One of the guys from Fat Possum] called me up and said, 'We need someone to drive Hasil to Oxford to record a record, and he can't be trusted to drive himself.' Basically no one else was stupid enough to do it. So I drove to West Virginia to get him, a seven- or eight-hour drive. He had junked cars everywhere he claimed they ran and two trailers. I don't know what was in the other one, but one had a fur toilet-seat cover, I remember that. Apparently he was on pretty good behavior when I had him."
One Man Band leans more toward rockabilly on songs like "Drive You Faster" and "Black Diamond Express Train to Hell," though Schooley throws country and blues against the wall as well.
"The one-man band thing is much more spontaneous; it's more like you're channeling the song," he explains. Things just come out. So, yeah, not a whole lot of thought. Yet, this is the hardest thing I've ever done physically. It's a full-body effort, and the less you think about it the better. A lot of people want to see you screw up, it's entertaining."
His solution: "My next band I want to just sing and not play anything. [The one-man band] is definitely making me more nuts."
Scott H. Biram
"I get a lot of people who are surprised about how normal I am after a show," says Scott H. Biram.
Not that he's a raging maniac onstage. He just sounds like one. One of the occupational hazards of a one-man band is that they tend to come off as insane, unbalanced, unable to work well with others. It brings to mind the romantic notion of the street busker mixed with the craze of luminaries like Hasil Adkins. You don't take someone with a song called "Muleskinner Blues" lightly. Biram has been a one-man band for about six years, and his solo career was one of necessity.
"In college, I heard Bob Dylan's first record, and I was really impressed by that," he says. "When I was little we would go see Doc Watson at the Armadillo, my dad bought me a Bill Monroe CD, and then I got into Townes Van Zandt. And one day I realized it was easier to practice on my acoustic and just leave it lying around the house instead of plugging in my electric."
Growing up just outside San Marcos, the 31-year-old got guitar lessons from his aunt. In fact, Biram's upbringing played no small part in helping shape his songwriting. Generations of his family grew up in the same town, graduated from the same school. Everyone knew his great-grandmother as "Ma." He had chickens.
"I really appreciated those days running along river bottoms, building rope swings, finding things to do," he remembers. "I don't like stuff that sounds really thought out, all flowery. The songs that come to me most frequently are the ones about heartbreak, rough characters, truck drivers, rednecks, and murder. And I like to have a Southern feel to all of that."
And he's all about Texas pride. While touring, he's encountered people who find out where he's from and proceed to talk shit.
"The place I get it the worst is Colorado," he says. "I don't know why they hate us. There was this one girl who told me she named her fish Texas because it was worthless. I was eating a piece of pizza at the time and threw it at her."
Biram's released three solo albums on his own label starting in 2000. While he was touring through Chicago with fellow one-man band Joe Buck, they stopped at the offices of Bloodshot Records. Biram handed them a CD and they released it.
The Dirty Old One Man Band came out in January 2005, a stompy, beer-soaked romp through chickens, murder, and hellfire confessionals run through effects to make his voice whiskey sour. His musical setup came from years of additions.
"Somewhere along the line I started stomping my foot on the base of my microphone stand. Then I started fooling around by making a stomp board that was more amplified, then I started distorting the guitar, then I switched to a hollow body to get that sound between acoustic and electric. I just figured out a way to make myself heard. I've always envisioned having a wall of old, beat-up speakers behind me. Well, they might not be old, but there's a wall."
In the spring of 2003, Biram was traveling on a stretch of highway near San Antonio and collided head-on with an 18-wheeler. He required multiple surgeries for broken legs, a shattered foot, and a broken arm. Nevertheless, he rolled into Austin's Continental Club six weeks later and performed attached to an IV. His shattered stomping foot started stomping on its own.
"With punk bands, I was writing two or three songs a week. With country bands, one or two a year. With country and blues there's this expected formula as far as parts go, so I had a lot of trouble with that. After my wreck, I was laid up in the hospital, and I was on so much morphine and Demerol, I started writing more rocking songs, like I used to. So, those country and hillbilly songs were still there and those aspects flowed into my rock songs. It became a monster."
Which brings us back to his first quote. Biram antagonizes his audiences during his show, but it's all part of the vibe. A critic from a Rochester paper, describing Biram's vitriolic show, wrote, "We all wanna be entertained, but nobody wants to get stabbed in the head with a screwdriver."
Biram laughs at this comment, but you get the feeling that if he needed to, he would at least shank you with a broken beer bottle.
OMB X 5
Ralph White Formerly of the Bad Livers, the 52-year-old plays banjo, fiddle, kalimba, mbira, accordion, and stuffs it into trad-blues. His solo album, Trash Fish, was a bizarre affair, and he's been known to cover Syd Barrett on occasion.