Talking St. Louis, Baseball, Country Blues and Crooning With Bhi Bhiman

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Talking St. Louis, Baseball, Country Blues and Crooning With Bhi Bhiman
Matthew Washburn
Bhi Bhiman is an unlikely young hero for whatever remains of the folk-side of the singer-songwriter scene. The 29-year-old, second-generation Sri Lankan American grew up in Ballwin, Missouri. His new record, Bhiman,, is an album that twists and turns and sometimes sails through Americana conceits, in part on the strength of Sam Kassirer's (long-time partner of Josh Ritter) adventurous production and Bhiman's wild, ripe vocal power. He has a voice made to croon, but he mostly lets it wail over his serious, country-blues-trained guitar chops.

Bhiman heads back to his native St. Louis for a show on March 21 at the Old Rock House (1200 S. 7th Street, 314-588-0505), opening for Rosie Thomas. Senior Music Writer Roy Kasten reached Bhiman at his current home in San Francisco.

Roy Kasten: Here's the first St. Louis question: What high school did you go to?

Bhi Bhiman: John Burroughs.

Can you talk about your experience growing up in St. Louis?

I grew up in Ballwin, right near Queeny Park. I played tons of baseball from the age of 7 to 15. That ruled my life, but I always liked music, and started to play guitar when I was seven. But I only got serious when I hurt myself playing baseball.

Did you have friends in bands?

My brother had a guitar but he gave up, so there was one around the house. Now I'm considered a singer, maybe, but I consider myself a guitarist first. I never took any vocal lessons. Really it was just singing in my car. That's when you can really sing and yell really loud. Nobody can hear your mistakes. I'd say my car was the biggest influence on my singing. It was an '88 BMW two-door, manual, a sweet car.

It maybe says as much about my tastes as anything else, but I actually hear classic country crooners, in your voice, Ray Price or Marty Robbins.

I take that as a high compliment. I really like all kinds of singers. Country singers or Sinatra, or Bon Scott, I don't care. But I like crooners quite a bit.

How did you meet up with Sam Kassirer, who has also worked with Josh Ritter for years?

I did some opening dates for Josh, and my manager is an associate with his manager, who also manages Sam for his production. They hooked me up. Sam is a great piano player. We went up to rural Maine to this 200-year-old farmhouse, which is the opposite of where I recorded most of the album, in San Francisco. He added piano, vibraphone, and I did some electric guitar. When I got there I had just acoustic tracks. Sam took it into another realm. He put a ribbon around it.

How did you get turned on to country blues and old time folk music, Mississippi John Hurt and Woody Guthrie especially?

Just by working my way backwards, from the early '90s to the '70s to the '60s to the '50s, and even further back, and looking at all the different guitar heroes. There's this guy, Blind Blake, who could have potentially run circles around Jimi Hendrix. He had this amazing, soulful style. I just love guitar and I'm able to copy cat some of them. Maybelle Carter had a great style that I'm still learning from. I'll search for great guitar music anywhere.

On the new album, you sing from a variety of points of view, as a farmer or a hobo. It's as if you're trying on different guises from song to song.

It is a throwback to another time, but I don't want it to be forced. It's not like I'm recording direct to vinyl. I want it to be modern. The song "Cookbook" takes the role of an Enron chief and that couldn't be further from the vagabond, John Steinbeck character.

I like how you do that on the song "Ballerina," which echoes Johnny and June's "Jackson." But you didn't get married in a fever; you got married in a Walmart.

I thought it was so silly when I wrote it. I'm trying to be a serious songwriter here, but it was too good not to keep.

Are you going to do the Prince Albert song when you come back to town?

I guess so. But I want to write a new Cardinals song.

You could just change all the lyrics, though Rzepczynski is hard to rhyme.

[Laughs] Does that start with an R?

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