As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 10, 2005
Hasil Adkins, described in the All Music Guide as a “frantic one-man band who bashed out ultra-crude rock & roll tunes about sex, chicken, and decapitation into a wheezing reel-to-reel tape machine in a West Virginia shack," died in April, just before his 68th birthday.
He was truly a one-of-a-kind musical maniac. Artists like Adkins are lightning-struck mutations. You can’t study and rehearse your way into Haze-hood.
But his one-man band routine is a modern incarnation of an ancient tradition. While the common image of one man-bands is a goofy novelty worth of Vaudeville or Venice Beach, according to music historian and instrument inventor Hal Rammel, the concept can be traced back to the 13th Century.
“As a category of musicianship it transcends cultural and geographic boundaries, spans stylistic limits, and defies conventional notions of technique and instrumentation,” Rammel wrote in 1990. “despite its generally accepted status as an isolated novelty, it is a phenomenon with some identifiable historical continuity.”
The cult of Hasil, did leave its mark on the music world -- though his followers are even more obscure than Adkins was.
One obvious heir is Arizona’s Bob Log III, an avant-blues avatar who looks like a drunken Power Ranger playing simultaneous slide guitar and kick drum as he sings sonically distorted songs about whiskey and strippers.
And shortly before Adkins’ death I came across recent CDs by two other Hasil-soaked one-man bands -- John Schooley (pictured here with Hasil himself) and Scott H. Biram.
Schooley’s CD, John Schooley & His One-Man Band is on Voodoo Rhythm, a Swiss rockabilly label. This means I had to do a little research. Voodoo Rhythm, after all is that same whacky company that perpetrated the Jerry J. Nixon hoax -- a CD of a rockabilly singer who purportedly recorded in Santa Fe in the early ‘60s.
But I’m pretty sure Schooley actually exists.
Birham’s The Dirty Old One-Man Band is on Bloodshot Records of Chicago, the home of “insurgent country.” The Bloodshot folks are smart enough not to get hung up on the fact that Biram is a lot closer to blues than country.
Here’s the rap on Biram: According to Paste Magazine, “Back in April 2003, Biram was rammed head-on by an 18-wheeler at 75 MPH, leaving him wheelchair bound with two broken legs, a broken foot, broken arm and a foot less of his lower intestine. But that sure as hell wasn’t going to stop him. Within a month he was back onstage at Austin, Texas’ Continental Club, rocking his hometown crowd with an I.V. jabbed in his arm.”
I think the Human Resources Department would refer to that as a “positive work attitude.”
Both CDs are boozy, lo-fi, noisy guitar-driven raunchy romps. Both men list Austin, Texas for a hometown. (Biram thanks someone named “Schooley” in his liner notes. I’m assuming it’s John.)
Each does a mix of his own songs along with covers of blues and country material.
Schooley covers Rufus Thomas’ “Tiger Man,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “KIllin’ Floor” and Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” Biram does Lead Belly‘s “Black Betty,” and the old hillbilly favorite “Muleskinner Blues.”
To the naked ear, these one-man bands from Texas may sound somewhat alike.
One difference is that Schooley is more of an actual one-man band, which means he plays guitar and foot-pedal-operated percussion at the same time. Biram’s main percussion comes from amplifying his tapping foot, so the beat isn’t as strong as Schooley’s
But Birham’s CD is more diverse in sound. He occasionally skips the surly bonds of one-man-band convention with an actual back-up acoustic country group called The Weary Boys. In a couple of tunes he’s accompanied by a gaggle of background singers he’s dubbed Scott H. Biram’s First Church of the Ultimate Fanaticism.
He puts aside the train-wreck blues sound for a sweet country sound. One might think that after his run-in with that 18-wheeler, a song like “Wreck My Car” would be a cacophonous scream ride. Instead, it’s actually a rather pretty, heavy on the harmonica, that contains a sweet snatch of Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” at the end. And in “Sweet Thing,” a bluegrassy song, Biram even abandons his 4 a.m. ham-radio distorto voice to sing it clearly.
While both Biram or Schooley specialize in a sound suggesting wild abandon, and both can rock like madmen, neither have the crazy edge of their spiritual forefather, Mr. Adkins. In the weird subculture of one-man blues screamer bands, that one man still stands miles above anyone else.
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